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What are education levels?

Ben Maples  · Mar 27th 2024  · 5 min

There are many levels of education in the UK - some compulsory, some not. From GCSEs through to PhD, let’s walk you through the levels.


We’re sure you know the basics - School for GCSEs, sixth form college for A-Levels. But what’s beyond this? Here, we’ll give you an idea of the different levels of education, who can take part in which and why you might look to study at that level.

Education levels in the UK

What are education levels?

In England, the qualifications you can earn are ranked from level 1 to 8. These levels are stacked across two qualification types: school or college and university.

These education levels are graded like this:

Education levels in the UK

But what does this all mean? Let’s take a closer look!

What are GCSEs?

A GCSE is the General Certificate of Secondary Education and is a level 1 qualification. These are exams that you study at the end of secondary school in year 11.

The grades are easy to marry up to the old system. Anything from 1 to 3 would be G to D on the old system, whereas anything from 4 to 9 would be C to A*. Some universities will consider your GCSEs when considering your UCAS application, but most typically tend to be more interested in your A-Levels.

What are AS-Levels?

AS-Levels are the qualifications studied before you study your A-Levels, and are studied in year 12. AS Levels are considered to be a level 3 qualification.

AS Levels are usually used to shape your final grade in a subject. They are not always required, as many students may just go straight into A-Levels, but if you're applying to a competitive university or course, then AS Levels can help move the needle in the right direction.

What are A-Levels?

A-Levels are Advanced Levels and sit at a level 3 qualification. These are the most universally accepted qualifications in the UK and are what you’ll typically need if you want to study at a level 4 or higher.

With A-Levels, students will study three or four different subjects over a two-year period. A-Levels are graded from E to A*.

Different ducation levels in the UK

What are BTECs?

A BTEC is a level 3 vocational course that focuses on a specific subject area. BTECs tend to focus on practical skills compared to other qualifications (like A-Levels), but will also touch on theory too.

BTECs are unique qualifications in that they can be studied at almost any level. They can substitute for GCSEs (BTEC Firsts) which are considered to be level 1, and can also substitute for AS or A-Levels (BTEC Nationals).

What are T-Levels?

T-Levels are a new qualification that was established back in 2020. These are generally seen as A-Level substitutes and are two-year courses and are considered to be level 3 courses.

T-Levels are considered to be the equivalent to three A-Levels. As a result, they are considered a level 3 qualification. T-Levels are offered in specific courses and have begun to take over certain BTECs; essentially, some subjects are not available as a BTEC and must now only be studied as a T-Level.

These are not accepted by all universities. While A-Levels are accepted at every university, BTECs are more dependent on the course and university you’re applying to T-Levels are the same, though universities are beginning to accept them as part of their admissions criteria.

What is the International Baccalaureate?

The International Baccalaureate (IB) is a qualification for international students. It’s studied by those between 16 and 19 and is a level 3 qualification.

The International Baccalaureate is studied around the world and is accepted by most universities. This qualification is open to everyone and will allow students to study in foreign countries.

Different education levels

What is an HNC?

The HNC is the Higher National Certificate. It’s a vocational qualification designed to prepare students for the working world. The HNC is a level 4 qualification and is generally taken between A-Levels and an undergraduate degree. It’sconsidered to be equivalent to one full undergraduate year at university.

What is an HND?

HND is a Higher National Diploma. An HND is considered to be a level 5 qualification. Much like the HNC before it, it is a vocational qualification.

HNDs cover a wider range of topics than an HNC and are considered to be the equivalent of two years at university. An HND can be studied as a two-year course full-time or a four-year course if you study it part time.

What is an undergraduate degree?

An undergraduate degree is studied at university. This is considered to be a level 4-6 qualification and the level achieved will depend on the type of undergraduate you study. For example, a Bachelor’s degree is the most typical undergraduate degree. Usually, after the full length of the course, you’ll achieve a level 6 qualification.

What is a Master’s degree?

A Master’s degree can only be studied upon completing an undergraduate degree. A Master’s degree is a level 7 qualification and can take as many as four years to complete. You’ll only be able to reach this level if you hold the necessary undergraduate degree.

A Master’s degree tends to be more focused than an undergraduate degree. Master’s will focus on certain aspects of undergraduate study in more detail, but tend to open up a bit for more research and a greater independent focus, especially when it comes to studying.

Education levels

What is a PhD or doctorate?

Both a PhD and a Doctorate are the highest level of education in the UK. These are level 8 qualifications and can only be completed after completing a Bachelor’s degree. PhDs can take as many as eight years to complete and will involve a huge amount of research, with the majority of your time working on your independent thesis.

Hang on… what about apprenticeships?

Yes, apprenticeships do carry a level! The level assigned to an apprenticeship depends on what type of apprenticeship you are studying.

The best way to show you is in this table:

Apprenticeship type Level Equivalent(s)
Intermediate 2 5 GCSEs (C to A*).
Advanced 3 C at A-Level.
Higher 4, 5, 6, 7 Foundation degree or higher.
Degree 6, 7 Undergraduate degree or Master’s degree.

You may have noticed that there are no level 8 apprenticeships. This is because this level is solely set aside for those who have a PhD or a Doctorate, as they are the highest-rated qualifications on offer in the UK.

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