Don't blindly assume that a degree is the best thing for you. Diana Hinds looks at your alternatives

Because of the expansion in higher education, even students with low grades can generally find their way onto a degree course if they so choose. But if you have struggled with your exams, now might be the time to think about what type of study and further qualification might really suit you.

Because of the expansion in higher education, even students with low grades can generally find their way onto a degree course if they so choose. But if you have struggled with your exams, now might be the time to think about what type of study and further qualification might really suit you.

HNDs

Higher National Diplomas (HNDs) are a good alternative qualification, particularly for those students with a more practical bent and an interest in vocationally-oriented subjects. HND courses last for two years, and comprise a combination of academic written work and more practical, hands-on experience. These courses generally involve fewer formal examinations, with more emphasis on practical, course-based assessment.

HND subjects range from, for instance, computer studies and business studies, countryside management, animal science and travel and tourism, to sports-related programmes, media production and theatre and performance studies. The beauty of this qualification is that after two years, students can either choose to start work in their chosen field, or, in many cases, they can stay on for a further top-up year and convert their HND into a fully-fledged honours degree.

HNDs are more likely to be on offer at new universities and colleges, rather than in the more traditional institutions, and the entry requirement is often one A-level, or the equivalent. Some universities run the courses themselves, others work in partnership with local further education colleges, and the range of subjects on offer will vary from one place to another.

"The HND students have excellent transferable skills," says Pat White, at Teesside University's Centre for Life-long Learning. "The vast majority of HND students at Teesside progress to a degree: by then they've got the bug, and they know they can do it. Often they are uncertain about their ability when they begin, but they gain confidence."

Foundation degrees

Foundation degrees are another possibility for students not yet ready to enrol on a full honours degree, particularly for those who want to combine work with study. Foundation degrees were introduced in England, Wales and Northern Irerland by the Government about five years ago, and are rapidly gaining popularity.

All foundation degrees involve time spent in the work-place, as well as in college. Much of the emphasis is on practical problem-solving, and written work builds on the experience gained in the work-place.The courses run for two years, and subjects - which again vary in different institutions - range from more general ones like business and IT, to more specialist subjects which suit those already in work, such as office administration, motor sport, land management and equine management.

University College Northampton, for instance, has been running foundation degrees, in conjunction with local further education colleges, for the past three years, and currently has more than 100 students on its most successful programme, Learning and Teaching. This is designed for those already working as learning support assistants in schools, and involves one day a week in college.

"Quite a few of these students go on to a top-up year, to get an honours degree, and can then look to do a teaching qualification," says Marie Stowell, UCN's director of access and education partnership.

Retakes

For students who open their results to find that they have met their offers, the way ahead is clear. For those who have failed, by one or more grades, to achieve what they have been asked for, there are, all at once, so many different options that it can feel very confusing.

But the first question students should ask themselves is: what do I really want to do? If you are prepared to consider alternative courses and/or institutions, then, grades permitting, you may choose to go through the Clearing system. But if you are absolutely set on a particular course, and if you have missed your offer by a narrow margin, then you may want to think about retaking one or more of your exams.

Always ask the institution in question before you decide to retake. Some are not open to retakes, others are, and may or may not give you a slightly higher offer.

Look at your academic profile. If you have strong results from your previous exams plus work experience and some decent offers, it is probably worth trying to improve your grades by a notch or two. But if you didn't do so well this time around, then retaking is less likely to be beneficial, and you might do better to consider an alternative type of course.

Think about where to retake. Some students swallow their pride and return to school, to repeat the year with younger classmates. Some sign on for courses at sixth-form or further education colleges (the inexpensive option), while others enrol for retakes at private tutorial colleges (the expensive option - at up to £4,000 per subject per year).

Fewer exam boards now offer a January retake, which means that retake students generally need to devote a year to their subject(s), or opt for a January to June course. Colleges report that retake numbers are declining - largely as a result of modular study, and the rise in university places.

Earn while you learn

Some students might take one look at their disappointing grades and say, "no more study now, it's time to go and get a job".

A break from study and a period of work experience can be valuable at this point. There are schemes available which can help these young people to build on work experience and turn it into a useful qualification.

Advanced Modern Apprenticeships, for instance, offer school-leavers a career route into fields such as health and social care, engineering and retail. During these two-year courses a student is employed by an organisation and given on-the-job training, while spending perhaps one day a week studying in a further education college.

Local authorities and the National Health Service, as well as private businesses, offer a considerable number of these apprenticeships, and may sometimes employ these young people on a full-time basis once the course is completed.

Other types of traineeship are offered by private training providers in specific vocational areas, such as business or health-care. School careers offices and further education colleges, as well as local Connexions services, should be able to provide information on the different opportunities here.

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