The Government has greatly expanded the number of HND places available to students, and there is now a vocational certificate to suit almost every career
To most people, the word higher education usually means "degrees". In fact, universities and colleges produce a large variety of qualifications, including diplomas and certificates, that open doors to a wide variety of good careers.

The Government is currently pushing Higher National Diplomas and Higher National Certificates with advertising campaigns as ministers believe these mainly vocational qualifications will have an increasingly important role to play in improving access to education for young people coming from families without a history of going into higher education.

David Blunkett, the Education Secretary, and the Prime Minister, Tony Blair, believe that anyone capable of a higher education should be allowed to get it. They believe that the HND and HNC are central to the creation of a more inclusive society by widening access to higher education.

The HND is mainly being taught at the new universities (the former polytechnics), but has comparatively recently started making its mark at colleges of higher education. It also appeals to mature students and those wanting to study part-time.

The two-year Higher National Diploma is the latest in a line of vocational qualifications developed since 1921, when chemistry courses were introduced in order to train a new generation of practical chemists. The most popular and successful HNDs available are those in computer and business studies.

HNDs grew out of Ordinary National Diplomas that were offered by technical colleges, usually in subjects related to mathematics and electronics. Some of these technical colleges became Colleges of Advanced Technology and subsequently universities.

HNDs thus grew up within the university system and are now at the pinnacle of the vocational qualifications pyramid. Most students go on to use their HND to enter the job market, but some - such as Michael Scott (below) - use them to switch to a degree course.

If you do well on the first year of your HND course some universities allow it as an entry qualification to an allied degree course. And, as Professor Alan Smithers of Liverpool University points out, HND students are often the first port of call for degree course administrators wishing to replace students who have dropped out of their course during the year.

But why do an HND when a degree offers more academically and looks more substantial on a graduate's CV? To start with, entry requirements for HNDs are significantly less stringent than for most degree courses. There is usually a minimum requirement of one A-level, a progression from a GNVQ course, or a taster course offered by colleges to introduce students to the subject of choice.

However, with the rapid expansion of higher education over the last decade, there is a recognition at the highest level that the number of "exit points" from higher education has to be increased. Even the most biased university graduate must acknowledge that there can be too many people with university degrees. Thus, the Government - keen on "inclusion" and "participation" - has increased the number of HND places available by 32,000 this year to provide variety in the higher education structure.

Whether or not these places are filled is questionable though. The number taking HNDs has remained static over the last three years at around the 25,000 mark, but has been bolstered by a large increase in overseas students - their level rising by more than 15 per cent in 1997/98.

HNDs and HNCs are available in a wide range of subjects. For example Southampton Institute offers an HND in design (communications as well as graphics) alongside its BA honours degrees in graphic design, international design studies, photography and fashion. HNDs may also be taken in business, together with finance, marketing, hotel, catering and institutional management, among others, and in leisure studies. With Southampton's prime coastal position, it also offers BSc degrees as well as HNDs in many maritime specialities, including marine engineering, maritime environmental science, nautical science and shipping operations.

At Harper Adams University College set in lush Shropshire countryside there is a good mixture of full honours degrees and HNDs available - including an HND in agriculture, in agri-food marketing and in agricultural engineering. All undergraduate full-time courses include a compulsory 12-month period of paid industrial placement. This not only provides hands-on experience but also gives students the skills that bring later employment.

Overseas placements are also a strong point, and last year students worked in countries as far apart as the Republic of Ireland and Australia, Greece and Canada, Germany and Zambia, France and America.

At Swansea Institute of Higher Education you may take a BA honours degree in such unusual subjects as architectural stained glass and ceramics, and an HND in each of them as well. HNDs as well as degrees are also available in photography, graphic design and general illustration. Building studies, civil engineering, computing and design technology as well as a whole variety of engineering courses are also available at both HND and HNC levels.

Earlier this year the University of Wales Court voted unanimously to admit the Swansea Institute of Higher Education into the university as a fully fledged University College - subject to Privy Council approval and the gaining of degree-awarding powers.

The internationally reputable Cumbria College of Art & Design offers not only honours degrees in fine art and design crafts but also a splendid HND in the latter and in graphic design, as well as BTec diplomas in design, the performing arts, popular music, and the media - and a GNVQ in art and design. It provides its own photography area complete with fully equipped studio as well as radio, television and video recording and editing facilities.

Last year 78,000 men and women studied for HND and HNC qualifications in higher and further education institutions. There is now a more varied set of permutations in higher education than in the football pools.

What the students say

Michael Scott (right), 40, has just finished his two-year HND in electronic and electrical engineering at Bolton Institute of Higher Education.

"I had been working for National Express in customer relations before being made redundant. I felt awful when I went in to sign on for the first time, so I really wanted to start doing something. I'd always enjoyed messing around with electrical stuff so I found this course at Bolton College which offered a one day a week introduction to electrical engineering. I decided to give it a go and ended up enjoying it so much that I carried it on for the rest of the year.

"At the end of the course I simply wanted to continue learning, so I signed up for an HND at Bolton Institute. The HND course was full-time, four days a week, with the fifth free for you to catch up on outstanding computer or lab work. During the week your time was taken up pretty equally between tutorials, computer and lab work. And the course itself was split into various modules - mine included units like process control engineering.

"There was a rolling set of coursework all year, as well as exams at the end of the year. It was hard work but the tutors were really good and kept you going. What was really good about Bolton was that tutors would be available to give individual help which I needed to begin with.

"I've finished the HND, but I'm still enjoying learning the subject. As I've enjoyed it, I put loads of effort in. I even got a prize as a reward for my high marks at the end of the two years! I'm now planning to go on and do a degree this September."

Chris Brown

James O'Connor, 24, has just completed a two-year HND in sound engineering from City College, Manchester.

"I have always wanted to work with music. Five years ago I did a diploma course at City College in Manchester in sound engineering and music technology. It was a good introduction to the subject, and I loved Manchester and the life there.

"In the two years after that though, I ended up getting stuck in a rut living at home in Oxford and I needed to do something. I went back to Manchester to do the HND course at City College again.

"The course was full-time, with classes and practicals four days a week. The fifth day was free, which I guess was provided for students to catch up on coursework. I was in a good situation because I had done the diploma course before, but for those who had little or no experience it was hard to begin with. They had to learn and be taught at a different pace, really.

"The first year was good fun and not too taxing. We were introduced to all kinds of sound engineering techniques. We were also taught an awful lot of computer software such as HTML and QBase. We also had coursework coming up pretty regularly throughout the year.

"The second year was much more challenging. Although there were no end- of-year exams to deal with, we had to do a major project throughout the year, involving a 5,000 word write-up. This was difficult for me as I'm slightly dyslexic, but the tutors were really helpful.

"As well as the project, we also had work placements as part of the course. I worked in a small studio for three weeks. Some got lucky and have been offered full-time jobs, and I'm trying to get work now in multi- media. What impresses employers is less the qualification and more having proper work experience from applicants."