What is an Access to Higher Education Diploma?
When I first started considering returning to education, I had no idea where to start. I took my A levels in 2012 in Music, Drama and English, which were completely irrelevant for a science subject, so I knew I had to return to some sort of education. After some LENGTHY research, I discovered the Access to Higher Education: Science Diploma, and applied to my local college. Access courses are the equivalent of A levels, except rather than studying them over 2 years, you complete the course in one year. It’s the most popular choice for mature students wanting to go to university, or for students who are over 18 and don’t already have a level 3 qualification and want to go on to further study.
The access course is formed of a total of 60 credits, 15 of which are either Achieved or Not Achieved, and 45 graded credits, which you can achieve at Pass, Merit or Distinction. I will talk about university entry requirements with an access course another time (if you urgently need information on this, contact the universities you want to apply to) but for now, I’m going to talk about how the course is broken down. Each college will have their own way of delivering the course, so I’m predominantly going to be talking about my own, personal experience.
My course is formed of 20 modules worth 3 credits each, which means I have 5 ungraded modules and 15 graded modules. Most of the ungraded modules come from study skills, which helps prepare you for academic study at university level, for example academic writing, Harvard referencing and presentation skills, but there are also some ungraded units within the science subjects, for example our module on ‘The Cell’ was ungraded. These modules must still be achieved in order to pass the course, and provide a fundamental understanding in order to succeed on the course.
The graded units are all within the subjects you have chosen. This year at the college I’m studying at there has been less flexibility in module choices than there has been in previous years due to coronavirus restrictions. This will vary from college to college, and I had a choice of either studying ‘Biology and Chemistry’ or ‘Physics and Maths’. As I want to study Ecology at University the obvious choice for me was the ‘Biology and Chemistry’ stream. There are however loads of different options and specific courses such as access to nursing, access to health science, access to computer science etc.
So how are the grades worked out? Well, we are constantly assessed throughout the year, rather than sitting one big exam at the end. We finish a module and then complete an assignment or two and move on to the next module. It’s fairly fast paced, and particularly where I’ve been studying we have had a stream of staffing issues which has meant that after a fairly slow first term, the second term, and now final stretch are all really intense, and we are actually now dealing with even more staffing changes. At the end of each module, it is up to the tutor to decide what kind of assignment you will sit. Some will be exam style booklets that you might have a few days or a few hours to complete. We have also submitted posters, cartoon strips, and power point presentations and videos. I think the exam board (Certa) require a variety of assignment types to prove the student can present their knowledge and understanding of a topic in different formats, plus it makes it a bit more interesting.
Each module carries Assessment Criteria as well as Grading Indicators. The assessment criteria is the specific content that you need to show understanding of, and the grading indicators are determined by how your work is presented: is your work consistent and logical, do you show very good understanding of the material or excellent understanding of the material, and it is the grading indicators that will determine your overall grade.
I know a huge barrier to a lot of people who want to return to education is funding, but I have good news! The Access to Higher Education Diploma can be funded through the Advanced Learner Loan, covering the full cost of the tuition fees, which varies from college to college, but for my course came to around £3.3k. You don’t start to repay this loan until you meet the income threshold (around £26k) and if you complete a degree, it’s written off completely! Your college should send you all the relevant reference codes once they have accepted your place on the course.
The only entry requirements for the course are that you have a C (or 4) in GCSE Maths and English (You will also need those pesky certificates!). A college may still take you if you don’t have these qualifications, they may just ask you to complete functional skills training alongside your course, which your university will also require.
Usually if you enroll through a college the classes are taught in person in college, however this year has been rather different, and I’ve seen wildly different experiences from students at other colleges. At the start of the academic year, our college was having some groups of students in on a rotating basis in bubbles, with the majority of content being taught online. I was only actually in college twice before Christmas, and to be honest the bubble system was quite disruptive as only half the class could be in at a time, so only half of us would learn the content, and the other half would have the same lesson the week after. Since January however, everything has been taught online, with only students who have practical elements to their course (such as photography, mechanics etc) being required to go into college. There are also exclusively online providers such as learn direct if you prefer an online approach and that fits around your life better.
I think that covers everything with regards to what an access course is! If you do have any questions at all, please feel free to get in touch, and I will be more than happy to help you out! I can, however, only speak from my experience so if you have any course or college specific questions, you may want to get in touch with your local college.
All the best