Course Guidance: Taking the low road will find the same goal: Karen Gold looks at the various routes open for the achievement of a degree

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The Independent Online
OBTAINING a degree is rather like travelling to a city centre. Even when the most direct road is blocked, there are all kinds of back ways to reach the same destination.

If all your chosen courses have rejected you, don't despair. With a little ingenuity you can find a different route to achieve your goal.

The most obvious is via one of the Business and Technician Education Council's Higher National Diplomas. These run for two years, requiring only one A-level pass for entry, and are offered by virtually all the former polytechnics and many colleges.

The HND is a popular and valid qualification in itself. BTec argues that it contains less theory but more practice than a degree course, thereby qualifying diploma-holders for 'hands-on' jobs such as laboratory technician or building-site supervisor, and perhaps better suited to people uncomfortable with the theoretical nature of A-levels.

You can do HNDs in horticulture, business studies, public administration, computing, fashion, photography, all kinds of engineering, catering management, leisure studies, physics, textiles, and much besides.

In higher education colleges BTec courses are invariably run alongside degree courses in the same subjects, and are frequently taught by the same staff and cover much of the same ground. This means you are well-placed, if you shine in the first or second diploma year, to transfer to the degree course.

For BTec you need one A-level, but most universities and colleges now run access courses leading directly to degree courses for people who have no A- levels. Access courses usually last for a year and cover preparatory material for one or a group of subjects - perhaps several sciences or humanities - so that students can experiment with subjects they missed or found difficult at school.

Most access courses guarantee a subsequent degree place to all students who successfully complete the year. They are usually open to 'mature' students, that is those aged 20 and over. They may focus on a particular group, such as women with small children. Unless they are job-related - pre- teacher training or engineering, for example - they rarely carry grants. Careers offices and libraries should have details of these courses. .

Access courses are often part-time, allowing you to study and work simultaneously. But colleges are increasingly interested in counting time spent at work as study time too. APEL (Assessment of Prior Learning) is a system whereby skills learned at work are credited towards a final degree.

Dr Cathy Hill, lecturer in experiential learning at Goldsmiths' College, London University, argues that someone who has been bringing up children and is now applying for a psychology degree could reasonably argue that his or her experience should count for something.

'If someone comes into Goldsmiths' asking about this, I help them to put together a portfolio of all the learning they have done that they don't necessarily know they have done,' she says.

'I had a designer who had been working for about 10 years and who couldn't progress further in his job without a degree. When his professional work was taken into account he was exempted from two of the three years of the course.' At present there is no national APEL system: would-be students have to approach individual universities to see if they will take prior experience into account. But the idea is growing in popularity. There is even talk of having a prominent 'prior experience' section on the 1994 UCCA/PCAS form.

Meanwhile, there are other ways to build up academic 'credit' via work or in your spare time.

Correspondence courses cover all kinds of subjects that may later exempt you from parts of a degree or professional qualifications (see below). Continuing education departments in universities and colleges offer evening classes that increasingly draw on degree material.

Parts of degree courses may be 'franchised' in local further education colleges or even to employers. Greenwich University (formerly Thames Polytechnic), for example, franchises a degree course to the Woolwich Building Society, meaning Woolwich employees can combine work and study and exit with a degree.

The important thing to remember, if your road to a degree seems blocked, is that universities and colleges are committed to huge growth in graduates. Many have set up education guidance services to steer applicants into previously unconsidered pathways through degree courses.

As a result, 18-year-olds with A-levels are already a minority in the new universities and colleges; students on non-traditional routes outnumber them. If you, too, have to take a detour on the road to graduation, you will certainly not be alone.

Details of BTec courses from:

BTec Central House, Upper Woburn Place, London WCIH OHH. Tel: 071-413 8400.

Correspondence course details from:

The Association of British Correspondence Colleges, 6 Francis Grove, London SW19 4DT.