Post-18 Options: Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs)

26th March 2020 by Richard Allnutt

The purpose of this article is to lay out, as simply as possible, what the options are at 18+. You are likely to be approaching this milestone as a sixth former, a college student or as an apprentice.

So, what are my options at 18?

Well, as noted above, I’ll try and keep this simple. First let’s break the options down into five broad categories;

1. Higher Education (H.E.)- Higher level courses (Level 4 and above) taught at Universities, Colleges of Further Education and other Specialist Colleges.

2. Apprenticeships- Jobs with recognised training at Intermediate, Advanced, Higher and Degree level.

3. Work- Paid employment usually with training specific to the job and/or company.

4. A ‘Gap Year’- This is done best when planned and with a purpose. What do you want to get out of your Gap Year and how does it relate to longer term aspirations? There are lots of opportunities to volunteer, experience travel and get paid work.

5. A third year of full-time Further Education- Further Education is fully funded until the academic year in which the student turns 19. Those who might spend the full 3 years in Further Education include;

  • students who left school to study an Entry Level, Level 1 or Level 2 course and wish to progress each year e.g. a Level 2 Health and Social Care student (1 year course) might then progress to a Level 3 Health and Social Care course (2 year course), or, from 2021 a T Level in Health
  • students who have to or choose to repeat year 1 of their A-levels because their results/personal circumstances.
  • art students who choose to do the one year Art Foundation Diploma to explore ideas and build their portfolio before applying for University or employment.
  • students who change their minds about their career pathway e.g. an A-level student who realises too late that they would be better off on a Level 3 technical course (2 years) and enrol on one the following year.

I thought Higher Education was only available at University?

No, University is just one kind of place where Higher Education is offered. It is also available in Colleges of Further Education and other Specialist Colleges (e.g. land-based, art, performing arts colleges). H.E. qualifications offered at colleges include Degrees, Foundation Degrees, HNDs, HNCs, Certificates of Higher Education. Do not overlook the H.E. options at your local College!

What is the difference between H.E. at University and H.E. at a College of Further Education or a Specialist College?

Let’s start with H.E. at Colleges of Further Education. Here courses tend to reflect the same Level 3 technical courses offered to 16-19 year olds. Remember, at all levels, Colleges of Further Education have long specialised in industry specific technical learning and qualifications focusing on skills, knowledge and experiences of the workplace. Foundation Degrees, HNDs, HNCs and Certificates of Higher Education are common H.E. qualifications in colleges and they take one or two years.

At the end of a two year programme students might be able to ‘top-up’ to a degree (at the college or through a local University partner) or progress into the workforce.

Colleges of Further Education are increasingly offering 3 year degree courses, but again they will likely focus on technical learning related to industry and work.

So, if Colleges of Further Education specialise in technical Higher Education courses, then Universities must specialise in academic H.E. courses?

It’s not quite as simple as that.

Some Universities have a long history of academic learning. For example, the 24 Universities that make up The Russell Group are from this tradition. Broadly speaking these Universities offer theoretical courses that further knowledge in a wide-range of familiar subjects and other not so familiar ones. The Russell Group are not the only traditional Universities in the U.K. Others that are not part of this club include University of Bath, Lancaster University, Loughborough University, University of Surrey, University of St. Andrews and many many more. Therefore, do not make the assumption that Universities of The Russell Group are always the ‘best’ academic institutions! 

Many Universities have a more recent history. At one time (pre-1992) the newer Universities were known as Polytechnics– a key objective for them was to offer academic learning with a technical approach (as the name suggested). Today, these newer Universities still provide lots of courses linked directly to specific professions and industries and many have developed very close links with the local economy. However, they also offer lots of the same academic degrees found at the older institutions. Indeed, over the years the lines between the traditional and newer Universities have become blurred with both traditions offering academic degrees and degrees with a technical approach.

Of course, the older academic institutions have always offered degree pathways to specific professions. For example, some of the oldest professions (Medicine, Dentistry, Pharmacy, Veterinary Science, Law) have been taught for hundreds of years at the traditional Universities. Equally, some of these oldest professions are now taught at the newer Universities too e.g. the University of Sunderland now offers Medicine and has long offered Pharmacy. As said, lines are blurred, but bottom line is you can study a general academic course at University or a course that has a technical aspect leading to an industry or a specific job.

Do I need to know what job I want to do (or sector I want to work in) before I choose a Higher Education course?

In short, no you do not need to know. There are thousands of  students, studying an academic subject (e.g. Chemistry, Computer Science, English, Mathematics, Geography, History, Philosophy, Politics & Economics) who do not know what job they want to do. As at A-level, academic degree courses do not directly link to industry nor specifically focus on the skills needed for specific jobs. On completion of their degree, these students are likely to move into postgraduate study linked to a job or sector, or seek a graduate training opportunity with a company where they will learn how to do a specific job. Other students choose to stay in academia, studying to Masters and/or Doctorate (PhD) level to become academic experts in their field.

However, there are also many students who do know the job or sector they want to work in. They might choose to study technical degrees which do provide a pathway to a profession or a wider industry (e.g. Accountancy, Business Management, Digital Media, Engineering, Information Technology, Nursing, Radiography, Social Care). Such degree courses might even offer a ‘year in industry’ and/or have work placement opportunities. Indeed most healthcare related students must spend a number of hours on clinical placement.

Finally, just because someone has chosen to do a more technical degree with a clear professional pathway, it does not mean that they are tied into this and all other pathways closed off. It estimated that almost 70% of all graduate jobs require a degree of any discipline. It is also true that students are developing transferable and diverse skills that can be applied across all jobs and industries. So, whether you choose a purely academic course or a more technical one with links to industry, you have lots of choices available and loads of flexibility in terms of where your next steps might take you.

I don’t want to go to University or College full-time. I want to get a job, but I also want a higher level qualification, what can I do?

This is where apprenticeships come in. Apprenticeships are available at Intermediate, Advanced, Higher and Degree level. In all cases the majority of your time is spent working for an employer and getting a salary. At any level, the application process is competitive and, like any job, you will compete against others for the vacancy. The learning is delivered by a learning provider which could be a College of Further Education, a private training provider or, at Higher and Degree level, a University.

Ideally, someone with a Level 3 qualification (A-level, Level 3 Diploma, Level 3 Advanced Apprentice) will look to the Higher and Degree Apprenticeship market, however there is intense competition for these vacancies. It is strongly advised to spend as much time planning for these as you would do planning and applying for University. The difference is you are applying for a job and therefore need to reflect on your skills and qualities. It is essential to be able to describe how your work experience, part-time employment, volunteering and additional responsibilities relate to the opportunity you are applying for.

A further option, although not as common for 18 year olds, is to work or volunteer whilst going to University part-time or by distance learning. The Open University offers hundreds of distance learning courses including those at degree level.

At 18, can I apply for a lower level apprenticeship (Intermediate or Advanced)?

Yes of course, although there might be some restrictions if you have completed a technical course, at Level 2 or 3, in the same area of work that the apprenticeship is in. This is because you would be doing the same qualification, at the same level, twice. As long as you are not doing the same qualification again, you can do a lower level apprenticeship at any age.

A-level students can always apply for all levels of apprenticeships because academic learning is not related to an industry or a job.

Some learners at 18 might have just completed their Level 2 in a specific job area and, for them, progression is to the Advanced Apprenticeship (Level 3). An Intermediate Apprenticeship is equivalent to Level 2. For example a Level 2 Professional Cookery student at a local college might move into an Advanced Apprenticeship (Level 3) with a local employer.

And what if I just want to move into work without formal training?

Well that’s fine. There is no legal requirement to remain in learning after 18. For example, if you have already achieved a technical qualification at Level 3, you want to remain in the same industry or work and you do not want to do a higher level qualification (Level 4 and upwards), then it is totally reasonable to pause your formal learning and just do the job. However, your career journey is likely to benefit from gaining the highest level qualifications that you can. So if further recognised qualifications are on offer, at least consider taking them up on it.

It is also important to know that even when a formal qualification is not part of the job, you will likely have to undertake internal training to be able to do the specified tasks safely and accurately and understand the company’s aims, structure and values.