It is never too late to take qualifications, but starting later usually means reduced choice of courses. If you do not obtain qualifications at the usual age, there are still opportunities to study as an adult without having to pay fees - and more opportunities with a Learner Loan or if you can pay fees. You can:
- Study for free at a Further Education or Adult Education college for certain courses.
- Take out an Advanced Learner Loan, which works just like a student loan, for courses which are not funded for you.
- Take an Access to Higher Education course, which does not require you to have GCSEs but will give you a full Level 3 qualification which will get you into many universities.
- Study for A-levels from home as an external candidate.
- Study with the Open University, which does not have any formal entry requirements, but you have to pay.
- Become an Apprentice - a few apprenticeships are open to those with no qualifications.
Some university courses, and some jobs, require you to have maths and English GCSEs at grade C in addition to any other qualifications, including access courses. You may find it widens your options considerably if you take these.
Note that if you are claiming benefits you will need to check how entering formal education would affect your entitlement. That is beyond the scope of this page. See the NUS on "Can I claim government benefits as a student".
Most of the information on this page refers to England, but the sections on other parts of the UK will take you to further information. Unfortunately it is very difficult to find centralised, up-to-date information on this aimed at the public, so often your best source of information comes from colleges in your area. However, there will often be some variation in the funding available to each college, so it's worth reading what each of them has to say on it.
We will first explain qualification levels, so that the rest of this page makes sense, before considering the options for gaining qualifications as an adult.
Qualification Levels Edit
UK qualifications come in different levels.
Level 1: GCSEs grades D-G, Level 1 vocational diplomas
Level 2: GCSEs grades A*-C or Level 2 vocational awards.
Level 3: AS- and A-levels, Access to Higher Education Diplomas, Level 3 Diplomas eg Btec L3 Diplomas.
Level 4: HNC, Foundation Degree, first year of a Bachelor's Degree.
See the Qualifications and Credit Framework site for more information on higher levels.
"Further Education" generally means education up to Level 3, offered at college.
"Higher Education" means university-level education, typically degrees or HNDs. Sometimes Further Education colleges offer some Higher Education courses.
Funding Overview Edit
Adults are entitled to study for certain qualifications free or funded by a loan, depending on age and whether you already have any qualifications. If you are aged 19-23 and have not taken any Level 3 qualifications, you are entitled to funding for your first full Level 3 qualification, and this could cover an access course to get you into university, or a vocational course aimed at employment.
This table from the government guidance for Adult Education funding shows what funding for tuition fees you are entitled to in 2017-2018.
Adult Education funding guidance from the government: Adult Education Budget Funding Rates and Formula 2017-2018
You may also be able to benefit from grants which contribute to costs of books or transport, or to general living expenses. Contact your local college to find out about these as availability varies. The focus of this page is tuition fees.
Distance Learning Courses can be eligible for funding under the same system, as long as the qualification they lead to is approved. However, 'once it's gone, it's gone' - if you use up your entitlement on a distance learning course, you will have to pay or take out a loan if you want to take other qualifications at a brick college.
Moneysavingexpert - Grants and Courses has a good overview of the different sources of living cost support available to adult learners.
AAT Student Finance - AAT provides finance qualifications, but its guide to student finance is excellent and relevant for anyone considering adult education. This is the most helpful guide I have found to all the different sources of finance available.
16-18 year-olds Edit
The UK has generous funding for education at 16-18 years old, if you enrol in a college or school sixth form. The government will pay for you to study qualifications up to Level 3. Standard funding is for the equivalent of 3 full A-levels, but if you are expected to gain grade B or above at A-level then you can be funded for 4 full A-levels. You are funded under this scheme if you are aged 16-18 when you start the course, so even if you turn 19 while studying, your funding will continue.
It is quite common for people to spend a year at age 16 gaining some GCSEs or other Level 2 qualifications, then study for Level 3 qualifications at 17-19. However, be aware that most Further Education colleges will have only a limited range of GCSE courses available at 16-19. In many cases it will only be English and maths. Other courses at level 2 are likely to lead to vocational qualifications such as BTecs. These can gain you admission to Level 3 vocational courses but it may be difficult to gain admission to A-level courses from this background, if that is your aim.
Colleges may not allow you to start at Level 2 if you have no prior qualifications. Some will, especially on skills-based courses like Art if you have a good portfolio to show - in this situation you may even be able to start at Level 3 - but this is less likely for other subjects. You may be required to start at Level 1 or Entry level. See our page on College for home-educated students for more on college options at 18 or younger. You can always argue, negotiate, and ask for an assessment. If you start at a higher level and find you can't keep up, it's easy to drop to a lower level. However, if you start at a level that is too low, the higher classes may have covered too much ground for you to switch after a few weeks - so it's worth lobbying strongly to start at the level you want.
If you are 18 or 19, consider your options carefully before completing a Level 3 course if it's not a useful qualification for you. Note that funding at 19-23 is dependent on whether you have completed your 'first and full' Level 3 qualification. If you complete a Level 3 qualification that does not suit your needs when under 19, that could remove your eligibility for funding at 19-23. On the other hand, at 16-18 there may be a wider range of courses available to you than at 19+ . Typically at 19+ you have a good choice of vocational courses and Access courses, but few opportunities to study for A-levels. There are some situations where you might be better off dropping out of an unsuitable course so that you can start a new one aged 19.
Legal entitlement at 19-23 Edit
In England, you have a legal entitlement to funding for what is known as your 'First and full' level 3 qualification if you are aged 19-23. This is the equivalent of 5 GCSEs plus 2 full A-levels, or vocational equivalent qualifications at Level 3. For instance:
- Access to Higher Education Diplomas
- two A-levels
- Tech Levels in the DfE 16 to 19 Performance Tables
- Early Years Educator qualifications that are 30 credits or 300 GLH or more.
The NUS has a helpful page on this - although it was written in 2013, the legal entitlement to funding your "first and full" level 3 qualification has not changed. However, now Advanced Learner Loans are available if you want to take additional qualifications or do not meet the criteria for this core funding.
Qualifications funded under the legal entitlement have to be drawn from a master list of OFQUAL - approved qualifications just for this purpose.The List of qualifications funded at 19-23 is a huge spreadsheet and is hard to navigate so best avoided unless you are desperate! Look for "List of qualifications at level 2 and 3 in the legal entitlements"
There are many qualifications approved for this legal entitlement funding, including A-levels, and vocational qualifications like the OCR level 3 certificate, Btec level 3 certificate and diploma. However, some Level 3 qualifications are not on the approved list for this funding. For instance, in 2016/17 a Level 3 Btec Diploma in Childcare was on the approved list, but a Level 3 CACHE Diploma in Childcare was not. Therefore if you are told that your preferred course is not funded, try a different college or ask if your college can offer the funded course.
Courses which are not on the approved list may still be funded under the 'local flexibility' rules; your local college will know what is funded there.
This legal entitlement is not widely understood - the government doesn't even have a page aimed at students about it! Colleges may tell you about Advanced Learner Loans, but note that the government says:
The availability of loans at Level 3 for 19 to 23 year olds does not replace an individual’s legal entitlement for full funding for a first full Level 3 qualificationThe main reference for this entitlement is the Adult Education funding guidance from the government: Adult Education Budget Funding Rates and Formula 2017-2018 . The table reproduced above is probably the most useful part.
Advanced Learner Loans Edit
You can get an Advanced Learner Loan if you live in England, for qualifications at Level 3 to Level 6 if you are not entitled to have the courses fully funded. It works like a Student Loan - you don't pay anything back until you earn £21,000 a year. If you take out an Advanced Learner Loan to do an Access Course, and you then go on to uni to do a degree or HND or HNC, the loan for the access course will be written off - so you end up getting it free.
Advanced Learner Loans are not means-tested, though there are some nationality/residency requirements. It applies to England only.
Advanced Learner Loans - info from the Money Advice Service - an independent consumer advice agency, set up by the government.
Note that regardless of colleges offering ALLs, you are still entitled to government funding for your 'first and full' Level 3 qualification.
Full-time courses at non-advanced level (below degree, HND or HNC) will usually be exempt from tuition fees in Scotland. In addition, you may be able to get help with living costs or costs associated with your course, depending on your income. See for example this helpful infographic from West Lothian College:
Your best source for up-to-date information is likely to be individual college sites, as there seems to be no central advice for Further Education College student finance in Scotland.
For example, see:
NUS Student Finance in Scotland - last updated in 2013 so check that information still applies.
NUS Student Finance at 19+ - Wales . Useful page but last updated 2013 so check information.
Welsh Government Learning Grant is available to full-time students aged 19 or over, dependent on household income.
Northern Ireland Edit
You will not normally pay tuition fees if you are studying a full-time Level 3 vocational course as an adult.
Some colleges offer A-levels tuition-free, while others charge.
There are a variety of funds and bursaries available to help with living costs while studying. See your local college for up-to-date information about what is available there.
NUS Student Finance at 19+ Northern Ireland - last updated 2013 so check.
Access Courses - Access to Higher Education Diploma Edit
Access Courses are a shortcut to a full Level 3 qualification and are aimed at adults aged at least 19; some courses have higher minimum ages. They are usually for age 19+ but some colleges allow 18-year-old students to join. The full name is an Access to Higher Education Diploma, but this is generally shortened to an "access course". While an access course can get you into many universities without A-levels, you may still need GCSE or IGCSE English and maths at grade C.
The Access Courses Site tells you everything you need to know about these. Here are some extracts:
Age for Access Courses Edit
"Access to HE courses are intended for mature students who have been out of education for some time. This generally means that students should be at least 19 when they start the course. Universities and colleges expect Access to HE applicants to have acquired a certain amount of life experience before they start an Access to HE course, so applicants who have only recently left school may be advised to follow a different route into higher education."
Entry requirements: Edit
"Access to HE courses are designed to meet the needs of people who have few formal qualifications, though some courses may require GCSEs in English and/or maths."
"Courses which don't require any specific previous qualifications normally ask applicants to complete some kind of written assessment, to identify whether they are likely to cope with the demands of the course and be able to meet the standards of the Access to HE Diploma. This kind of assessment is usually designed to test applicants’ skills in written English. For some courses, there may also be a numeracy test, if skills in this area are important for the particular Diploma."
"The Access to HE Diploma is a full level 3 qualification. Study on the Access to HE Diploma makes academic demands that are at an equivalent level to those of other level 3 qualifications.
Examples of other level 3 qualifications include A levels and Scottish Highers. This comparison relates to the level of the qualification: there is no standard measure of 'equivalence' that relates to the volume of the qualification."
Distance Learning Edit
Some distance learning providers offer access courses. It appears that you would need to take out an Advanced Learner Loan or self-fund for these courses; we have not found any examples of distance learning Access courses being offered free under the 19-23 funding entitlement, but if you know of any, please leave a comment on this page.
Find a Course on the Access to HE Site - you can specify distance learning from the search options.
Stonebridge College Access Courses via distance learning - article and some useful info.
Funding for Access Courses Edit
If you don't have any Level 3 qualifications then you may be able to have your Access course fully funded under your legal entitlement to qualifications at 19-23 - see above.
If you are 24 or older, or younger but already have Level 3 qualifications, then you could take out an Advanced Learner Loan - but you might end up getting the Access Course free. If you take an Advanced Learner Loan out for an Access to Higher Education course, and then go on to higher education and complete your course, your Advanced Learner Loan for the Access course will be written off - so your Access course is effectively free as long as you go on to complete a degree afterwards.
"Student Finance England will ‘write off’ any outstanding Advanced Learner Loan balances you owe for an Access to HE course once you complete a higher education course. This means you don’t have to repay it."
Comments on Access Courses from Home Educators Edit
J's family Edit
Two of my own adult children have just completed access courses this academic year. Neither was ever HE, and both had level 3 qualifications prior to this ( so this may make funding complicated )
DS 26 did A levels at the "right" time but wanted a career change - he is off to Cardiff to do a nursing degree in a few weeks. Prior to this he worked in book publishing. He had no choice but to do an accessc ourse as he needed recent proof of study. As he was over 24, the course was funded by a student loan under a Govt scheme which means if you do on to uni you don't have to replay this loan ever [See Funding for Access Courses]. His course " Access to Nursing" was 2 mornings a week, covered biology/sociology and psychology - and study skills (a lot of emphasis on this). He found it very enjoyable and straightforward.
DD 22 did " Access to Teaching" although she is now off to uni to do psychology. She also had a level 3 qual (BTEC in child care) but couldn't get into most unis with that. As she is under 24 there was no loan, but she managed to wangle funding as she is a single parent on benefit, or else we would have had to pay the tuition fees. Similar course to DS but English language instead of sociology. 2 evenings a week
My observations - the content is a LOT less than A level although what they do study they do in some depth. So for biology they only studied a couple of organ systems rather than the whole syllabus. There is though an emphasis on learning useful skills for uni - eg proper referencing methods and essay techniques. Assessment was via a range of essays, tests, group and individual presentations and so on - it was quite a lot to pack in to 2 sessions a week and quite a few of their classes fell by the wayside. Grading is by 45 points ( at distinction/merit /pass) - offers from uni varied - DD were all " pass" but the Nursing offers were much more competitive ( plus there are lots of other hoops to jump through for nursing) Cardiff wanted 27 distinctions and rest at least merits. The college where they did their access course wouldn’t consider applications from anyone who didn't already have maths/English (and for some courses 1 science) at GCSE. Some colleges are less fussy and let you take maths etc alongside the course.
Two girls from our HE group have also taken Access courses in the last 2 years. Both had GCSEs/IGCSEs, which they has taken at 17/18 ( they had been abroad earlier)
Girl one was a month short of her 19th birthday but persuaded them to take her after a fight, girl 2 was just 19. They both did an "access to science " course and did extremely well. Girl 1 managed to get an offer for pharmacy from a Russell group uni; unfortunately without chemistry A level she sunk rapidly - there was just not enough material to support her pharmacy course and she failed her first year exam and left- she is now doing a more general science degree at a less demanding uni.
Girl 2 is off to study medicine at Hungarian university - it will be interesting to see how she gets on without A levels - but she is the most determined young lady I know!
My overall opinion is that Access courses have their place - but they can't substitute for broader knowledge if you use it to go on to a course which actually needs that subject matter. For a humanities type course it may work well, and they are helpful in preparing students for independent working. However most of the student in the classes were well over 19; - I think that colleges try to prevent young candidates in most cases, so younger people may not find them accessible.
You can study for A-levels as an adult, either at college, from home as an independent learner or using a distance learning course. In this situation you would work from home just as a home-educated student does. However, you would normally need to study any related GCSEs or IGCSEs first. A-level syllabuses are very demanding and, for most subjects, assume that you have covered the relevant GCSEs and they then build on that knowledge. At college - some colleges offer A-level courses, and these would normally be funded under your legal entitlement at 19-23 if you do not have any Level 3 qualifications. However, usually the entry requirements for A-levels are strict and will require a GCSE in the subject or related ones.
Taking A-levels from home - all you need to know, for students of any age.
Although your legal entitlement to funding at 19-23 would cover A-level courses at college, we have not so far found any examples of distance learning organisations offering courses using this funding. Please do add a comment to this page if you know of any examples.
Open University Edit
There are no formal entry requirements for OU undergraduate courses.
Open university courses usually have to be paid for, but the amount you pay depends on the country you live in. There are different rates for England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland.
You can take out a Student Loan to pay OU fees.
Please see our page on the Open University for more information from home educators who have used the OU.
Apprenticeships are jobs which include a training programme. They are targeted at 16-24 year-olds; there is no national maximum age, but funding is different for those over 24.
Each apprenticeship employer sets its own requirements for entry and age of applicants. Some require you to have some GCSEs already, whilst others will have no minumum requirements. There is no substitute for checking through all the lists of apprenticeships on offer.
If you do not have maths and English GCSEs when you become an apprentice, you will need to study for them (or equivalents) as part of your course. This can put employers off offering apprenticeships to candidates who don't have those qualifications already.
Money Advice Service guide to Apprenticeships - useful guide from independent advisory body set up by the government to advise the public.
Apprenticeships on gov.uk - surprisingly user-friendly information from Gov.uk
Free online courses Edit
MOOCs are Massively Online Open Courses.
Free online courses can be a good addition to your CV, but they do not usually lead to a recognised qualification. For a small fee you can often get a certificate of completion or participation, but you would need to research how useful this might be.
An extensive list of free online university modules from The Student Room.
More Info and Useful Articles Edit
How to get into uni without A-levels, from The Guardian, 2013.
Is it possible to go to uni without any Level 3 Qualifications / A-levels? From The Student Room forums.
Mature Student Applications to University - UCAS . Defines 'mature student' as 21+. Lots of info and tips.
Higher Education - This wiki's page on applying to uni after home education