Student Advice

What is a HNC?

Ben Maples  · Nov 16th 2023  · 11 min

HNC stands for Higher National Certificate and is a qualification awarded by Edexcel in England and a Higher National awarded by the SQA in Scotland.


A vocational option of higher education, the HNC is highly regarded by both smaller and international companies and can be used to apply for further undergraduate study at a university. HNC is also a good option for those wanting to pursue a career and who prefer practical learning and teaching, to learn skills for a specific job. It is estimated that last year around 25-30% of Scottish higher education learners chose to study for an HNC.

What is a HNC?

What is an HNC?

The Higher National Certificate (HNC) is a vocational pathway into higher education. It’s designed to prepare students for employment in various industries. HNCs are Level 4 qualifications in England, Wales, and Northern Ireland, while in Scotland they are studied at SCQF Level 7. Focusing on developing practical skills and knowledge for specific industries or job roles, HNCs balance theory and hands-on experience to allow students to gain academic understanding and workplace skills.

HNC courses are created with employers to ensure the course gives you the skills to start or progress in your career. Consequently, HNCs are highly regarded by both smaller and international companies. HNCs can also be used by students applying for further undergraduate study at a university. This is offered as a stepping stone towards a Higher National Diploma (HND) at Level 5 or even a full bachelor's degree.

What does HNC stand for?

HNC stands for Higher National Certificate. It’s a BTEC qualification awarded by Edexcel in England, Wales and Northern Ireland. In Scotland, the HNC is a Higher National awarded by the Scottish Qualifications Authority (SQA).

What is a HNC equivalent to?

All UK qualifications are organised in tiers; this system reflects the different HNC levels of challenge and study hours required to complete each type of course. Basically, it’s a more meaningful way to tell your employer about your achievements. It’s comparable to the first year of university, or a Certificate of Higher Education.

How long is an HNC?

Studying an HNC usually takes one year to complete full-time, or two to four years if you opt to study a part-time HNC qualification.

What’s the difference between HNC and HND?

HNC is the first step into higher education, with the HND (Higher National Diploma) coming next, if students choose to continue. An HNC takes one year full-time, whilst an HND takes two years, and is equivalent to two years at university. So, HNC or HND: which is higher? In short, the HND!

When can I take an HNC?

In England, you can do an HNC after taking your A-Levels (or Advanced Highers in Scotland). It can be a gateway into studying an undergraduate degree and are often studied between college and university, or between college and full-time employment.

You can also study an HNC as part of a student apprenticeships. It comprises the knowledge-based section of the course, contributing towards your overall success on the apprenticeship programme.

Alternatively, you may choose to study an HNC whilst already in employment. This can be a great way to further your career. It’s a good idea to speak to your employer if you’re in this situation; they can help you decide whether it will be better to study alongside your job in a part-time capacity, or to take a year out to study full-time.

Studying a HNC can be an excellent career move at any point in your education or employment.

What is a Higher National Certificate?

What is the benefit of studying for an HNC?

A lot of people decide on an HNC if they’re not 100% sure what they wish to study at university. The HNC allows you to discover the world of higher education without the cost of university and provides a more practical approach to learning which may be better suited to you. If you decide you enjoy your chosen HNC subject and want to pursue the subject further, this can be converted into an undergraduate degree. An HNC is also a valued qualification in its own right and is often a pathway into full-time employment.

Where can I study an HNC?

You’ll study your HNC at a further or higher education college. It’s also possible to apply to study your HNC at a university. If you pick this route, check out different universities to see what courses they offer (find a university here). Once you’ve chosen a course to study, it’s best to contact the institution directly to apply.

You can also complete a distance learning HNC. More on this later!

How should I choose what to study?

There’s a wide choice of options for study across several sectors, so there should be something for everyone and provide a great route into further education or a career. An example of the type of study you can engage in is listed below, within each sector, there are numerous course and specific topics that, with an HNC, you can study, such as:

  • Agriculture degree
  • Business and Management degree
  • Computing and IT degree
  • Construction and Civil Engineering degree
  • Engineering degree
  • Health and Social Care degree
  • Hospitality Management degree
  • Performing Arts degree
  • Retail and Distribution degree
  • Sport and Exercise Sciences degree

When considering what to undertake at HNC level it’s worth looking at your strengths in your previous study. It is important to consider both what you are good at and what you enjoy. If you are struggling to decide on what’s best suited to you, talk to a personal tutor or careers adviser - they’ll be happy to help.

They can look through your previous qualifications and help you to recognise what sector your skills may be best suited to. You should also take the time to ask the opinions of your friends and family, these are the people who know you the best and they may offer a fresh perspective. Think about what you may want to do in the future and if your plans require a specific subject - choose a sector that will work with this.

If you know what career you want to pursue, or if you want to convert your HNC into an undergraduate degree and enter into further study in a particular subject, consider this whilst applying.

Most importantly, the final decision has to come from you - weigh up your options and you’ll make the right decision!

What is a HNC?

How much does a HNC cost?

The total cost of an HNC course ranges between around £4000 to £8000, with £6000 per year being a typical fee. Payment is usually made per unit, and eligible students can apply for a tuition fee loan from Student Finance England.

2019-2020 HNC fees in Scotland are £1,285 per year, and this is eligible for funding by the SAAS for Scottish residents. Other UK residents studying in Scotland will pay £3,000 per year.

What is HNC study useful for?

The HNC allows you to discover the world of higher education without the cost of university. This makes it a great way to dip your toe in before committing to a complete degree in a particular subject. If you decide you enjoy your chosen HNC subject and want to pursue it further, you can convert HNC qualifications into an undergraduate degree.

Additionally, the HNC provides a more practical experience of learning than some academic courses, and this may suit your personal learning style better. Not only that, it might suit the actual course subject better too. A construction HNC is much more useful than pure classroom study about building methods.

An HNC is also a valued qualification in its own right, helping students build knowledge and skills in a particular area of expertise. Studying an HNC can often provide a pathway into full-time employment, because of its close links with the industry it focuses on.

Some HNCs even prepare and qualify students for membership of a professional body. For example, an HNC in housing can provide entry to the Chartered Institute of Housing (CIH) chartered membership.

HNC entry requirements

As a qualification with higher education status, students require previous qualifications for entry onto an HNC course. To apply to study for an HNC you should have achieved at least one A-Level in England, or two passes at Higher Level (or above) in Scotland.

Can I do HNC distance learning?

There are a number of HNC/HND distance learning options available. HNC construction, HNC engineering, and other BTEC HNC courses are provided as distance learning programmes by universities across the country.

What is a HNC qualification likely to include?

What to expect from HNC courses broadly depends on the subject itself, so naturally, an HNC engineering course won’t look very much like an HNC computing course. However, they will each follow a similar structure.

Every HNC qualification is built in units, which are specific modules of study that work together to fulfil the umbrella subject (such as HNC civil engineering, or HNC early education and childcare).

All HNC courses also integrate maths and English skills, and follow similar assessment and grading systems to one another, which are explored further below.

What is an HNC assessment like?

Throughout your year of study towards an HNC, you will be assessed on numerous practical tasks, written assignments and projects. Each of these units is designed to test your knowledge and demonstrate the skills you have learnt during the course. This will result in a knowledge-based qualification.

This method of assessment can be preferable to a single exam at the end of the year, as you can keep track of your progress moving through the year. By working on numerous projects, you avoid intense pressure and anticipation on a single assessment.

What is an HNC?

How are HNCs graded?

Once you reach the end of your HNC year and you’ve been assessed, your HNC level results will be shown as either a Pass (P), Merit (M) or Distinction (D). On the HTC grading scale, a Distinction is the highest award and a Pass is the lowest, with Merit in between. If you haven’t met the criteria to reach the Pass level, you’ll receive an unclassified grade (U).

Taking HNC resits

If you’re disappointed with your mark for a specific unit, assessment or project, it’s often possible to retake that particular part of the course, improving your overall grade. In this scenario, contact your college to discuss details further with your tutor.

You can also appeal a result if you have good reason. If you believe that there’s an issue with any result, it’s again best to get in contact directly with your college tutor, who can advise you of the best route to take.

What to do if you are unhappy with your results

On receiving your results it may be that you have failed a specific unit, assessment, or project. If this is the case it may be possible for you to retake that particular part of the course in order to improve your overall grade. If this case arises, it is best for you to contact your college to discuss the specific details further with your tutor.

You can also appeal a result if you have good reason to. If you believe that there may be an issue with any result, it is again advised to get in contact directly with your college tutor who can advise you of the best route to take.

What can I do with an HNC?

You have lots of options after an HNC. After a successful completion of your HNC, you have the option to continue on to study a Higher National Diploma (HND).

Alternatively, you can use your HNC to enter into the world of work, applying within the sector of study. The HNC is highly regarded, showcasing your practical and on-the-job skills which are very attractive to employers.

Do you get HNC UCAS points?

No, but that’s not a bad thing! UCAS tariff points are awarded for courses below university level, to demonstrate your readiness to begin a uni course. An HNC is completed at university level, so it doesn’t carry ‘university ready’ UCAS tariff points, but instead carries ‘university achievement’ credits. So, how many UCAS points is a HNC? Zero. But how many credits is a HNC? A completed HNC is worth 120 credits. In Scotland, that’s 96 SCQF credits.

Can I get onto a degree course with an HNC?

Yes, quite often. You can apply for the second year of a Bachelor’s degree with an HNC if the subject is closely related. For most degree programmes, that means you only need to complete two more years of study, rather than three.

Another benefit is that there’s no big rush. If you decide to continue with full-time work after your HNC, but want to consider a degree in the future, the Open University allows you to transfer credits from HNCs completed up to 16 years prior.

What is a university HNC?

What universities accept HNC?

It sometimes depends on the specific course you’re interested in, but plenty of universities accept applicants with HNC qualifications. The University of Edinburgh, The University of Westminster, and The University of Glasgow, amongst others, consider HNCs acceptable for entry onto their degree programmes.

Always check directly with the provider, though. The University of Glasgow, for example, permits HNC students to begin an Applied Chemistry degree in the second year, but Bioscience students must start from the first year (whilst medicine students are not accepted onto the degree with an HNC at all). Because admission criteria vary so much, even within a single university, you should contact the institution for the most up-to-date information.

What HNC qualifications can I study?

There are a wide range of qualifications you can study for a HNC and the subjects you can study vary across areas. You’ll find qualifications for accounting, civil engineering, childcare and social services and so much more.

The subjects on offer will vary depending on where you hope to study them. The subjects you can study for a HNC are similar to the subjects you can study for an HND, since the two qualifications are somewhat similar.

Going forward

Whatever you choose to do with your HNC, it’s a very worthwhile qualification to have, and opens up many educational possibilities. It also provides a solid skill set that most employers will recognise, should you choose to pursue this route.

Whatever you choose to do with your HNC, it is a very worthwhile qualification to have and opens up many educational possibilities that may not have been an option with your previous qualifications. It also offers you a good skill set that most employers will recognise should you choose this route – good luck with whatever is next!

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