A guide to college higher education

By David Clapham; Quality, Partnerships and Learner Engagement Manager, University Centre Calderdale College. First published in Teachers Guide.

You may not realise it but going to university isn’t the only way to get a degree. For some young people, studying at their local college may be the better option. Dozens of colleges dotted around the UK offer university-level qualifications – the numbers make up around 10% of the total higher education student population.

What are the differences between college and university higher education?

The key difference is that the smaller institutions have something alternative to offer to students. Although the university undergraduate experience is great, the supportive and immersive learning experience at a college can be just as transformative because of the unique opportunities that it presents.

There’s usually a fantastic age range in college higher education - 70% of our higher education students are mature, some into their sixties! The mixture of ages creates a melting-pot of collective experience. The contrasting perspectives and range of skills can be amazing and inspiring, creating unique and challenging learning experiences for those at each end of the scale.

Because it is usually smaller-scale, college-based higher education is often more specialised. For example, University Centre Calderdale College offers only thirteen undergraduate courses, only six resulting in a BA (Hons) award.


The largest course is Early Years; the high volume of local nurseries and pre-school settings means that there is a demand for qualified Early Years practitioners. Some of those who complete the Foundation Degree in Early Years go on to complete the BA (Hons) ‘top-up’ year, but many don’t, because they don’t need a full degree to gain their desired job promotion.

At the other end of the scale, there are only c20 undergraduates completing our BA (Hons) in Contemporary Art and Design Practice programme. However, the studio space for our third year ‘top-up’ students at Dean Clough Mills in Halifax offers internationally renowned art galleries and a thriving community of artists-in-residence who drop-in to share their wisdom about surviving in the professional art world. It’s small-scale compared with a typical university cohort for many courses, but the chance to collaborate and share a space within the professional world is invaluable for students seeking a career in the creative industries.

Higher and degree apprenticeships

Colleges lead the way in offering higher and degree apprenticeships because they are a great way to combine a qualification with real work experience. Most colleges’ apprenticeship provision is outstanding, because the mixture of hands-on vocational and traditional learning is what colleges have been doing in higher education for decades.

Some students live at home, some with parents, or as mums and dads themselves (or grandparents!), working part-time, full-time or volunteering to gain experience.

Rather than the usual live-away university experience, college-based higher education usually means fitting studies around professional life and family responsibilities, enabling a good work and study balance. The individual flexibility and support is designed to give students the best opportunity to achieve – both academically and after they finish. The majority go on to work in industry, to study on MA programmes, and some even go on to teach and inspire the next generation of students as well.

If you’re interested in studying a degree at University Centre Calderdale College, find out more about the courses we offer.