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Looking to Study for a Degree? It’s Not All About Exam Grades

Inevitably at this time of year, a lot of focus in education is on exam results. At a political level, GCSE and A-Level performance gets used as a barometer for how well the education system is doing. The crude metric is that if the number of top grades and passes goes up, the system is doing its job properly.

This completely misses what is really important about exam results. The real story is about individuals. It’s about their aspirations, about their next steps and future prospects.

A-Level results day in particular is a seminal moment in the lives of tens of thousands of young people. Especially if they are planning to go on to higher education in the autumn and study for a degree, it’s one final hurdle to cross. Unless they are lucky enough to have received an unconditional offer, then results day is when they find out whether they have got the grades they need to accept a place on their chosen course.

This is really what exam results day is all about. But even then, it’s easy to get swept along by the narrative that if you want to go to university, if you want to study for a degree, you need good A-Level grades. Those who get them, go. Those who don’t, don’t.

All too often do we reduce continuation into higher education to this black and white, all-or-nothing duality. It’s an oversimplification that is bandied around at this time of year more than ever. And very much to the detriment of students.

For one, it causes all sorts of stress in the build up to getting results. Plus it also leaves those who don’t quite get the grades they need to get onto their course feeling like failures, despairing of their chances of ever studying for a degree.

It’s all very unnecessary. Because that overly simplistic story that the only way to get on a degree course is to get the right A-Level grades simply isn’t true.

Despite the way it is portrayed at times, higher education is not a closed shop that favours people with the right academic skills who also happen to be good at sitting exams. By perpetuating the myth that it’s A-Level grades or bust, all we succeed in doing is putting off talented people from fulfilling their potential.

There are many reasons why you may not have three good A-Level grades to use as a passport onto a degree course this autumn. There are equally plenty of other options available to you.

Foundation Year Routes

One of the best options if you are determined to study for a degree but don’t have the right A-Level or equivalent qualifications is what is known as the foundation year route.

Foundation year courses are an extra year of study tagged onto the beginning of a degree course. You take your foundation year and then continue straight onto a bachelor’s degree course, adding up to four years’ study in total.

Taking a foundation year makes sense in many ways. In terms of the way qualifications are structured and levelled in the UK, there is actually a big leap from A-Level to bachelor’s degree level. An A-Level is ranked as a Level 3 qualification, a bachelor’s degree Level 6. The idea is, with each year you study for a degree, you build up your competencies and go up a level at a time, although you don’t get a formal qualification until the very end.

When you put it like that, it looks like a daunting leap to take. If you don’t already have the Level 3 qualification, it’s an even bigger jump. A foundation year course is a useful stepping stone. It lets you build your skills and knowledge in your chosen subject area to prepare you for degree-level study.

Just as importantly, it helps you build your confidence studying in a university or college environment, including practical considerations like managing your own timetable, studying independently and getting the most from lectures – all things you may not have come across before.

As an alternative to foundation year courses, you can also choose to take a foundation degree. Like a foundation year, you can get on these courses without a Level 3 (A-Level equivalent) qualification. But unlike a foundation year, a foundation degree is a two-year course that leads to a formal Level 5 qualification (equivalent to a Higher National Diploma or HND). There is no obligation to carry on to study for a bachelor’s degree, although you can take a top-up year to upgrade if you want to.

Who are Foundation Year Routes For?

Again, the common characterisation of foundation year routes is that they are for people who don’t get good grades when they leave school. But that’s another unfortunate over-simplification.

The reality is that there are all sorts of reasons why people might not have a Level 3 qualification but are looking for an option to study a degree. For example, at Regent College London, we get lots of applications for our foundation year courses from mature and returning students, many of whom left school at 16 with only GCSEs or O-Levels (Level 2 qualifications). They are often looking to take a degree to help with their career progression, or perhaps to support a career change.

Studying for A-Levels part-time through night and weekend classes takes at least two years, often longer if you are trying to balance study with full time work and other commitments. A foundation year course offers a faster route, and also serves as better preparation as what you study in your first year is directly relevant to what comes after.

Another common example of people choosing a foundation year route is when they decide they want to study in a subject area very different to the A-Levels they took. Let’s not forget that we ask young people to choose their A-Levels at 16 when they are still studying GCSEs at school. We expect them to make this decision with a clear idea of what they want to do post-18. Inevitably, many people change their minds along the way!

So if, for example, you chose to study arts and humanities subjects like English, History and Philosophy at A-Level but then decide you want to go into engineering, science or business management, you may not get an offer of a degree course place no matter how good your grades because your subjects aren’t directly relevant. A foundation year course provides the ideal stepping stone.

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