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What counts as Higher Education in the UK?

In this blog post, I explore definitions of higher education (HE) and HE qualifications, to provide a rationale for the definition the College HE project will adopt.

The College HE project aims to obtain HE data from further education (FE) data collections across the UK.1 HE is a devolved matter in each country of the UK, meaning different regions can deliver policies specific to their needs.2 Varying perceptions of HE have emerged as a result. Finding a definition which can be applied across the UK will allow the College HE project to determine what data should be ingested and ensure all HE learners are included.

How can HE be defined?

There are several pieces of legislation which define HE in the UK. The Higher Education and Research Act 2017 states that HE is any course that meets the definition in Schedule 6 of the Education Reform Act 1988.3 However, the Education Reform Act is only applicable to England and Wales. Northern Ireland and Scotland define HE courses in the Further Education (Northern Ireland) Order 1997, and the Further and Higher Education (Scotland) Act 1992.4 While devolution permits formal divergence in definitions, in practice a degree of convergence appears to prevail, as we shall see.

Some authorities also attempt to define HE, providing qualification types, or a brief sentence, whereas, others do not explore the definition, leaving the term undefined.

The National Careers Service broadly define HE as courses and qualifications that can be taken after the age of 18.5 However, students across the UK are able to enter HE below 18. This is common in Scotland, with many students entering University aged 17.6 Therefore, using age as an indicator of HE does not offer complete insight.

Turning to definitions used by UK-wide sector agencies, UCAS recognises HE as the level of education they can help students apply to.7 Likewise, the Quality Assurance Agency (QAA) expands on this, also providing qualification types:

“[HE is] education that comes after secondary and further education, leading to a qualification or credit awarded by a degree-awarding body. Typically, it involves working towards a degree, but some programmes may lead to a diploma, certificate or other award or qualification on the national Qualifications Frameworks.” 8

However, the Economic Affairs Committee highlights that, “for the purpose of funding and regulation the definition [of HE] is more complex”.9 When considering HE, some authors refer to funding distinctions between courses. The following section will present these categories, exploring the varied terminology surrounding HE qualifications across the UK.

What qualifications are regarded as HE?

The table below highlights the hierarchy of HE qualifications and relevant levels.

Table 1: Levels of HE Qualifications in the UK 10

Level in England, Northern Ireland, and Wales Level in Scotland Qualification examples
4 7 Certificates of Higher Education
5 8 Diplomas of Higher Education
Higher National Diplomas
Foundation Degrees (N/A in Scotland)
6 9 Bachelor’s Degrees
Graduate Diplomas
Graduate Certificates
10 Bachelor’s Degrees with Honours
7 11 Master’s Degrees
Postgraduate Diplomas
Postgraduate Certificates
8 12 Doctoral Degrees

Whilst there are various HE regulatory bodies across the UK, there is a consensus on what HE qualification frameworks should achieve. This is that qualification titles should be clear and consistent.11 Table 1 highlights that by having clear frameworks, comparisons of HE can be made across the devolved nations.

In England, the Office for Students’ (OfS) sector-recognised standards reference Levels 4-8 as HE in England.12 Qualifications Wales also state that Levels 4-8 are consistent with the Framework for Higher Education Qualifications in England, Wales and Northern Ireland.13 Therefore, making qualifications in Wales at these levels HE. In addition, the Department for the Economy in Northern Ireland (DfE NI) considers Levels 4+ as HE, for “provider funding and administration purposes”.14 As highlighted in Table 1, in Scotland HE is defined as Levels 7+ on the Scottish Credit and Qualifications Framework.15 This is equivalent to Levels 4+ in England, Wales and Northern Ireland.16

Whilst there is convergence on what qualification levels count as HE, the devolved nations draw distinctions between two categories of HE qualifications, based on their funding eligibility. However, the terminology varies.

One distinction that can be made is between ‘prescribed’ and ‘non-prescribed’ qualifications. Within the table are prescribed qualifications, which are often taught in HE institutions.17  In comparison, non-prescribed qualifications, whilst still HE, are mostly taught in FE institutions.18 Non-prescribed qualifications are defined as higher level, vocational courses which lead to various awards.19 They range from Level 4+, are shorter in length than prescribed qualifications, and attract more part time, older students looking to upskill and retrain.20 The majority of these are vocationally focused.21 Examples of non-prescribed qualifications include:22

  • City & Guilds Level 4 Diploma in Business and Professional Administration
  • ATHE Level 4 Diploma in Computing
  • Pearson BTEC Level 5 Diploma in Therapeutic Counselling

‘Prescribed’ and ‘non-prescribed’ categories currently only appear to be an explicit distinction in Wales, with the Higher Education Funding Council for Wales (HEFCW) referring to funding prescribed courses of HE in FE institutions in their 2022 funding allocation.23

In England and Northern Ireland, there appear to be similar distinctions. DfE NI refers to ‘designated’ and ‘non-designated’ courses for student support.24 In England, the Department for Education identifies that the ‘designated’ and ‘non-designated’ distinction is interchangeable with ‘prescribed’ and ‘non-prescribed’.25 As explained by DfE NI, designated courses qualify for student support, whereas non-designated courses do not, and are found in the Register of Regulated Qualifications. Non-designated courses are regulated by the Council for the Curriculum, Examinations and Assessment (CCEA) in Northern Ireland and Ofqual in England.26

In comparison, the OfS identify ‘recognised’ courses of HE for funding, which are defined by Schedule 6 of the Education Reform Act 1966, or courses “designated under the Education (Student Support) Regulations 2011”.27 Courses not recognised by the OfS for funding can be compared to the ‘non-designated’ category in Northern Ireland, as they are also found in the Register of Regulated Qualifications.28

Scotland, however, does not refer to the above distinctions. Section 5 of the Further and Higher Education (Scotland) Act 2005 defines ‘fundable’ HE.29 This includes qualifications displayed in Table 1, as well as ‘higher level’ courses:

  • in preparation for a qualification from a professional body
  • not referred to in any of paragraphs (a) to (e)
  • designed predominantly to prepare a person for participation in any course of education referred to in this subsection.

Whilst there is no explicit distinction in the above legislation, the Student Awards Agency Scotland states that they provide student support to ‘eligible’ higher education courses.30

Within this section it has been highlighted that despite funding differences occurring between HE courses, there is some level of consensus on what qualification levels count as HE. Therefore, it is important to include each of the categories mentioned within the College HE data, to ensure all UK HE learners are reflected. 

What definition is proposed for the College HE project?

After reviewing the legislative basis of HE, it is clear that multiple HE authorities across the UK are converging towards a comprehensive definition, which the College HE project will adopt.

The consensus displayed above between the devolved nations is consistent with a definition used by the Government Statistical Service (GSS). The GSS definition uses qualification levels. Under this definition, HE is classed as Level 4+ in England, Wales, and Northern Ireland, and Level 7+ in Scotland. 31 Choosing this definition will ensure that all HE qualifications, and learners, are reflected in the College HE data ingestion.

Being an official statistics producer, it is important for HESA to generate data which is accurate, reliable and comparable to other official statistics producers. 32 The GSS definition is helpful in this, as it is acceptable across government and is endorsed by other authorities such as the QAA.33

Therefore, for the reasons presented, the College HE project intends to adopt a consensus definition consistent with HE legislation, as stated by authorities such as the GSS.

Read more about the College HE project

[1] HESA (2022) HESA’s vision for college HE data. Available at:

[2] Raffe, D. (2015) “Higher Education Governance and Institutional Autonomy in the Post-devolution UK” in Riddell, S., Weedon, E., and Minty, S. (eds) Higher Education in Scotland and the UK: Diverging or Converging Systems. pp. 19 – 30. Available at:

[3] See Section 83, subsection 1 of the Higher Education and Research Act 2017. Available at:; Schedule 6 of the Education Reform Act 1988. Available at:

[4] See Schedule 1 of the Further Education (Northern Ireland) Act 1997. Available at:; Section 38 of the Further and Higher Education (Scotland) Act 1992. Available at:

[5] The National Careers Service (2022) Higher Education. Available at:

[6] Riddell, S. (2015) “Scottish Higher Education and Devolution” in Riddell, S., Weedon, E., and Minty, S. (eds) Higher Education in Scotland and the UK: Diverging or Converging Systems. pp.1 – 18. Available at:

[7] UCAS (2022) UCAS Terms Explained. Available at:

[8] Quality Assurance Agency (2022) QAA Glossary: QAA Terms Explained. Available at:

[9] Economic Affairs Committee (2018) Funding and Regulation. In “Treating Students Fairly: The Economics of Post-School Education”. Available at:

[10] Quality Assurance Agency (2014) The Frameworks for HE Qualifications of UK Degree-Awarding Bodies. Available at:; Scottish Credit and Qualifications Framework (2017) The SCQF Interactive Framework. Available at:

[11] For examples of published materials that explore the comparability of recognised standards by a range of regulatory and other authorities, see: Quality Assurance Agency (2014) pp.9; Office for Students (2022) Sector-recognised Standards in England. Available at: Pp.1; Scottish Qualification Authority (2019) Guide to Scottish Qualifications. Available at: Pp. 4; Welsh Government (2021) Credit and Qualification Framework for Wales. Available at: Pp.13 – 14.

[12] Office for Students (2022) Sector-recognised standards. Available at:

[13] Qualifications Wales (2016) Qualification and Component Levels. Available at:

[14] Department for the Economy (2022) Consultation on Level 4 and 5 Provision and Higher Education in Further Education. Available at: p. 7.

[15] Scottish Funding Council (2022) HE Students and Qualifiers at Scottish Institutions 2020-21. Available at:

[16] Scottish Qualifications Authority (2019) Qualifications can cross boundaries. Available at:

[17] Department for Education (2019) Independent panel report to the Review of Post-18 Education and Funding. Available at:

[18] Ibid.

[19] Education and Skills Funding Agency (2020) Funding guidance for young people 2020 to 2021. Available at: Higher Education Policy Institute (2019) Shining a light on Non-Prescribed Qualifications. Available at:

[20] Department for Education (2022) Higher education policy statement & reform consultation. Available at:

[21] Education Policy Institute (2016) Remaking Tertiary Education: can we create a system that is fair and fit for purpose? Available at:  

[22] Department for Education (2022) Lists of Qualifications approved for funding. Available at:

[23] Higher Education Funding Council for Wales (2022) HEFCW’s Funding Allocations for Academic Year 2022/23. Available at: Pp.1

[24] Department for the Economy (2022)

[25] Department for Education (2019) p.36

[26] Department for the Economy (2022)

[27] Office for Students (2022) Higher Education Students Early Statistics Survey 2022-23 (HESES22) Guidance for Providers. Available at: p.29 – 30

[28] Ibid. p.30.

[29] Section 5, subsection 3 of the Further and Higher Education (Scotland) Act 2005

[30] Scottish Student Awards Agency (2022) Guide to full-time funding. Available at:

[31] Government Statistical Service (2022) Qualifications Harmonised Standards. Available at:

[32] Government Statistical Service (2016) ESS Dimensions of Quality. Available at:

[33] Quality Assurance Agency (2014)


Tlyssa Plester

Tlyssa Plester

Lead Policy & Research Analyst


College HE project