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The basics
Study abroad : Subject Guides

What is a vocational course?

We explore types of vocational courses and professions better suited to people who prefer to learn in a more practical setting.

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With a plethora of qualifications on offer at colleges and universities around the world, it can be tricky to understand the differences between these accreditations and know which is best for the career you want. For example, you can study for an undergraduate, postgraduate, PhD, MBA, foundation, diploma qualification and so on. But which courses are best for students who prefer a hands-on approach to learning? In this article, we explore vocational courses for those students who wish to gain practical skills and train for specialist professions. 


What is the definition of a vocational course?

A vocational course is focused on practical work, preparing students for a particular trade or skilled profession. This is in contrast to the more theoretical and academic courses such as historyphilosophy, or mathematics which can lead to a variety of professions. Vocational courses on the other hand are specifically designed to equip students with the skills needed to enter the working world. Vocational courses are therefore best for people who know what profession they want to do and are ready to commit.


Vocational qualifications have historically been considered less valuable than other courses such as a university degree, but it depends on the level of the course. Some vocational courses are the equivalent of an undergraduate degree or even a doctorate-level programme. If you prefer to learn in a practical environment, learning through doing, then a vocational course might be better suited to you in comparison to more traditional, academic courses.


Vocational courses list

Common vocational courses include:



These are just a few examples of vocational courses on offer at universities and colleges around the world. 


Some institutions specialise in offering vocation oriented qualifications with a focus on particular industry skills. For example, the Culinary Institute of America (CIA) is renowned for its degrees in food and hospitality management. With an immersive learning model students are equipped to hit the ground running when entering the workplace. CIA offer associate, bachelor’s and master’s degrees in numerous specialisations including, applied food studies; culinary science; food business management; and wine and beverage management. 


What qualifications are awarded to vocational courses?


The qualification you gain following a vocational course depends on the subject you choose and the organisation awarding the accreditation. Examples include:




Diplomas provide students with practical training and work experience. There are four levels of a diploma: foundation, higher, progression and advanced. Diplomas typically take less than a year to complete but usually last longer than certificates. A standard diploma is usually considered the equivalent to five GCSE’s (or equivalent) at grades D-C.


Advanced diploma 


An advanced diploma is the equivalent of two A-levels and an extended diploma is equivalent to three. To be accepted onto this type of course you will typically need four or five GCSE’s (or equivalent) at grades A*- C.




Specialist, vocational qualifications are designed to prepare students for work. Unlike degree courses, BTECs typically use coursework and practical assessments as opposed to essay writing and exams. If you have a BTEC qualification and want to apply for an undergraduate degree afterwards, you will need to check with the university/college as they may prefer A-levels. However, this is not always the case. One in four students in the UK got into university with a BTEC (UCAS & HESA data 2017). 


BTEC qualifications are also internationally recognised, which is great if you are applying with BTECs for a course in another country. Make sure you check the specific requirements of the university and course you are applying to as entry requirements vary greatly per institution.




An NVQ or national vocational qualification is recognised by employers all over the world. This qualification provides students with a range of practical skills and knowledge to prepare for a specific career. NVQ’s can be based in school, college, university, or the workplace. You will be expected to create a portfolio of your work which will be assessed in addition to observational assessments where a tutor will grade you based on your performance. 


There are five levels of NVQ’s starting from entry-level (ideal for those without previous knowledge or qualifications) up to level five (students looking to gain expertise or enter into senior management). While there is no specific time limit when studying an NVQ, most level one and level two NVQ’s take around a year to complete. Some even choose to study an NVQ while working full-time or part-time to enter into a new industry or to upskill.


  • NVQ Level 1: Equivalent to 3-4 GCSE’s (grades D-G)
  • NVQ Level 2: Equivalent to 4-5 GCSE’s (grades A*-C)
  • NVQ Level 3: Equivalent to two A-levels
  • NVQ Level 4: Higher Education certificate/BTEC
  • NVQ Level 5: Higher education diploma/foundation degree


Common NVQ courses:


What are the benefits of studying a vocational course?


Before you go, let's take a look at some of the major advantages of studying a vocational course:


Gain work-relevant skills


You may be keen to work but you need the skills and knowledge to launch your career. That’s where a vocational course comes in. Learn in practical settings and gain work experience as you study.


In some cases, you can work and study at the same time. Boston Architectural College (BAC) offers a unique learning model where over 90 per cent of students work full-time while studying. This facilitates the application of knowledge in real-time professional environments, great for enhancing work experience.  BAC offers professional and vocational qualifications in architecture, interior architecture, landscape architecture, and design studies.


Get the skills employers want


Although it depends on the job you want, employers value work-ready candidates who can get to work straight away.


Prepare for university


You might want to go to university, but don’t yet have the necessary qualifications. A vocational course might be the perfect stepping stone to help you progress onto a university course, although you must check with the university first to make sure your course is accepted, and that you achieved the right grades.


To ensure you make the right decision, do some research into the industry you want to enter into to find out more about common routes into that field. If you’re struggling to decide on the right course for you, check out our guide on mapping your career and study path. Alternatively, find a course with our course matcher tool which gives you results based on your qualifications and preferences.

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