Are you leaving school but want to start work and still study towards your degree? Or perhaps you want to pursue a two-year higher education programme which employers recognise around the world? Do you worry about leaving home and running up debts whilst studying? Maybe you didn't do as well in your A-levels as you'd hoped and are rethinking your options about what you want to study?

If you can answer yes to any of these questions, a BTEC Higher National Diploma (HND) may offer you an interesting way forward. HNDs have been part of the higher education landscape since 1974 and are an internationally recognised qualification. They are a way for students to prepare for careers in their chosen field through membership of relevant professional bodies, with exemptions to membership status for over 60 professional organisations.

HNDs are an Edexcel qualification and a fully accredited and certified qualification recognised by UCAS, and universities around the world. An HND is worth 240 HE credits and many successful HND students transfer onto the final year of degree courses to top up their HND by studying for the 120 credits which will confer full degree status on them.

Employers speak very highly of the skills and experience which HND students gain. Many say that students with HNDs are able to start work immediately and do not require training to be able to do the work they are employed for.

Another benefit is that, unlike degrees, there is a national standard. Students with an HND in travel and tourism in a college in Northern Ireland will have reached the same standard with identical assessment and quality assurance processes as an HND in Cornwall, although the precise mix of units will vary.

There's a wide range of HND subjects, including agriculture, health and care, engineering, public services, biological sciences, construction, graphic design and hospitality management. Whatever your vocational interest, you are likely to find a HND that covers it!

Unlike degree programmes, which are usually delivered in universities, HNDs can be taken at a wide variety of institutions, including universities and Further Education colleges. There's likely to be a HND programme near to you, although not all subjects are available everywhere. There are more HNDs in areas such as business, computing and public services than, for example, equine studies, dental technology or fashion and textiles.

Since it is usually possible to pursue HND study near to home, students will often make financial savings and, in terms of top-up fees, students are favourably placed. Many colleges have decided not to apply top-up fees to HNDs but, even where they are applied, the HND student completes after two years, rather than the three for a degree, with savings as a result. Having said that, most HND programmes have an arrangement to enable students to convert to an appropriate degree. If students take this option they will complete three years with the award of an HND as well as a degree.

HNDs are outcome based, meaning that students demonstrate they can achieve the stated learning outcomes by undertaking practical and varied assessment tasks. There are no theoretical essays; Higher National assessment is geared to the demands of a vocational specification that expects practical relevance. Each HND consists of 16 units; there is a standard core of seven units for all subjects but centres are able to present different packages of specialist units to cover local requirements. They are designed with employers and employment in mind.

If we take the HND sport and leisure management (health and fitness) as an example, we will find the specialist unit 23: coaching science. This unit has three learning outcomes, one of which is to examine the scientific concepts that underpin exercise physiology. This outcome has three assessment criteria, each of which needs to be achieved to demonstrate that the outcome has been met. Again as an example, one of the three is to analyse the role and functions of body systems during exercise and movement.

Each unit is delivered in 60 learning hours, which can comprise formal teaching, seminar discussions, practical or laboratory sessions and guided reading and research.

Whatever you choose, BTEC HNDs will give you a head start in your career.

Michael Hewens is a commercial support manager at Edexcel