UCAS Listings: An HND will put you on the right track to a stable career

Taking a Higher National Diploma is a better option than picking a degree in haste. By Diana Hinds
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If you have scraped through a couple of A-levels, think hard before you scramble to get on to any degree course that will take you.

Enrolling for a Higher National Diploma could be a more profitable option in the long term, as well as giving you access to a greater choice of subject and better class of institution.

"Oh, HNDs: aren't those the things people do if they're not clever enough to do a degree?" you might be thinking, for it is true that the main problem about the HND is image: next to the degree, it has come to look distinctly second-best. But how much do you know about this qualification?

HND subjects tend to be more vocationally-oriented. The two-year courses are more practical in bent and slower in pace than a degree and the entry requirement is usually one A-level or the equivalent. But perhaps the chief selling point of the HND is that after two years a successful student can transfer to the second year of a related degree course, and end up with two qualifications.

Despite a history of over 20 years, the HND is currently experiencing something of a national decline in applications, particularly in subjects like engineering. Part of this decline is a result of the increasing popular appetite for the degree.

"It is almost as if the word "degree" had a magic ring to it", says Malcolm Carr-West, head of agricultural engineering at Writtle College in Essex, who teaches HND and degree students.

"There is considerable pressure on students to go for a degree, and schools tend to see the HND as second best, because they are trying to get pupils to pass three A-levels. There is also a bias against it embedded in the British psyche: because the HND has a practical edge to it, it is seen as a lower level qualification.

At Writtle College, however, which offers HNDs in agriculture, horticulture, equine sciences and engineering, the number of HND applications is on the rise, and many students go on to do a degree.

At Teeside University, where some 30 HND courses are available, about 32 per cent of students are currently doing HNDs (or their-part-time equivalent), and the university hopes to keep this figure up to about 35 per cent. Many of the HND courses are filled through clearing, and most HND students go on to a degree

Applications to Teeside are up for HNDs in business and in computing but engineering is proving more difficult: a new pounds 500 bursary for engineering HND students at Teeside should give the subject a boost.

"HNDs are not a second best option - although we accept that is how they are perceived." says Nic Mitchell at Teeside. "They are a marvellous route in for many students."

For able students who have failed their A-levels, for reasons not related to their academic ability, the HND can be a useful stepping stone to a degree; good marks in the first few terms may mean a student can transfer to a degree after only a year.

Another much under estimated virtue of HNDs, says Malcolm Carr-West, is that employers like them. "Because of the practical element in the course, students are ready to go straight into work," he says.

Some students may opt to retake A-levels with the hope of taking a degree.

"But that is a risk, and it means going back to school or sixth form college," says Nic Mitchell. "Enrolling for an HND means you are pushing forward."