Vocational or academic: which is better?

Vocational qualifications include NVQs and BTEC certificates and diplomas. These range from level one to five for NVQs and one to eight for BTECs. An outline of different qualifications can be found below in table format so that you can see how they map against each other.





Entry level certificates and diplomas


Level 1 NVQ, Foundation Diploma, BTEC award, certificate and diploma


Level 2 NVQ, BTEC award, certificate and diploma



Level 3 NVQ, BTEC award, certificate and diploma

AS and A-level


Level 4 NVQ. BTEC professional award, certificate and diploma, HNC, certificate of HE


Level 4 NVQ, HNC, HNC, Diploma of HE, Foundation degree


Level 4 NVQ, BTEC advanced professional award, certificate and diploma (level 6)

Bachelor’s degree


Level 5 NVQ, Post graduate certificate and diploma, BTEC advanced professional award, certificate and diploma (level 7)

Master’s degree


NVQ level 5


What’s the difference between studying vocational and academic study?

One of the main differences between academic study and vocational is that studying for A-levels involves study across and variety of different subjects whereas studying for a vocational qualification, although made up of a variety of components, is all aimed at one subject.

Another difference is that where A-level assessment comes at the end of the course, vocational qualifications include continuous assessment. Vocational subjects are a combination of theory and practical work, sometimes with work experience. Vocational subjects also form part of apprenticeship programmes.

Vocational qualifications are well respected by universities and offer a pathway to a full time degree course in the same way that A-levels do. In fact, some universities welcome students from the vocational pathway onto degree courses, particularly those courses that are practical in nature, as students from a vocational background have learned a great deal about using the equipment already.

Entry requirements for vocational qualifications

Entry onto vocational qualification courses ordinarily will be as follows: entry level require no previous qualifications, level one will require some GCSES mainly at grade E, for a level two course you will need four GCSES (A*-D) and for a level three qualification you will be expected to have 4- 5 GCSES (A* - C) including maths and English, which is much the same as you will be expected to have to study A-levels.

Vocational qualifications are no easy option

Vocational qualifications are not the easy option; they are simply different to academic study in that the way that you learn and the way that you are assessed on a vocational course differs from A-levels or other academic courses at levels three to eight.

Doing a degree following vocational study

Vocational courses at level three in particular offer a great way to learn the skills that you need for higher education or a specific field, such as childcare. One thing to consider, if you want to study for a degree in Fine Art for example, is that choosing the vocational route can see you go straight onto a degree course compared with a student of A-levels who will probably have to undertake a foundation course prior to beginning their degree.

Some vocational qualifications explainedHNC (Higher National Certificate)

An HNC takes one year to complete and is considered equivalent to completing the first year of an undergraduate degree course. Though it covers many of the same subjects as the HND (see below), it is actually a level below but can be used to go on to complete a HND.

HND (Higher National Diploma)

An HND is considered to be roughly equivalent to the second year of a university degree and many people who complete a HND go on to complete a university degree, bypassing the first two years at university. It is usually geared towards more vocational subjects and students studying for a HND can usually expect a more workplace-based style of learning. Subjects offered at HND level include music production, jewellery, business and accountancy. It takes two years to complete, unless you have completed a HNC (see above), in which case the HND takes only a year to complete.

Foundation degree

A foundation degree is designed to give students basic knowledge in their subject areas and most students who complete a foundation degree then go on to study for a university-based bachelor’s degree. Foundation degrees are ideal for those who wish to gain workplace-based skills while also gaining a more academic platform for their chosen career.

As with HNDs and HNCs, there are lots of vocational subjects offered at foundation level which make it perfect for people who want to go into careers such as accountancy, pharmacy and town planning. Foundation degrees are also great for those who are unsure whether they want to commit to years of extra study. After achieving a foundation degree, you can choose to go on to study a BA or BSc, but it doesn’t have to be straight away. Though many students go on to top up their foundation degree to a full honours degree, unlike the HND a foundation degree is a degree in its own right.

Extended degrees

Extended degrees are another route into higher education for those who don’t have traditional qualifications such as A-levels and BTECs but who still want to study for a degree. Extended degrees are offered by colleges in partnership with local universities and typically, students take modules over the course of one year in subjects such as communications, IT and numeracy to make sure they’re ready for further study. When the year is over, students then go on to study for a relevant degree at the university which provided the extended degree. This is the perfect reintroduction to education for those who have been out of education for a while.

Don’t forget apprenticeships

An apprenticeship is a job with training for vocational qualifications and sometimes professional qualifications related to a career attached to it.

You will ordinarily work for your employer four days a week and train / study for your qualification on the fifth day.

The qualification and the level of that qualification will match the apprenticeship programme that you are on, so apprenticeships provide an opportunity to begin your career whilst studying for the qualifications that you will need to evidence your skills.

Degree Apprenticeships

How do you fancy gaining a full Honours degree whilst doing an apprenticeship? From September next year, these will be available thanks to new government backing.

Many young people are drawn to the idea of an apprenticeship, but equally, they want to get a degree. These new apprenticeship programmes in the fields of IT, Digital and Software will allow just that.

Academic learning will be provided by universities, including Manchester Met and UCL, with the practical training element being delivered on the job by companies, such as IBM, John Lewis, Lloyds Banking Group and Network Rail amongst others.

This will offer a great opportunity for young people to do several things; enter the industry, gain real worthwhile experience and skills that meet the needs of employers and also to raise their academic profile by studying at university.

Check out our blog articles for more in-depth articles on a variety of careers and qualifications

Latest Blogs

Top 5 reasons why MetFilm School is the place to kick-start your future in the screen industry!

MetFilm School is a world-leading film, television and online media school offering undergraduate, postgraduate and short courses. Our London campus is based at the famous Ealing Studios. Here you can find our top five reasons to study at MetFilm... Read more

Open day!

Open day 8th April 10am to 3pm. Come and see our facilities, chat to the staff and guests and get a feel for the amazing environment we have.Amazing GAP year opportunities: come to beautiful Northumberland, less hassle and none of the expense of... Read more