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What is a vocational course?

When comparing study and degree options it’s important to understand what’s available. We explain what vocational courses are, what vocational degrees mean, and what vocational subjects there are available, as well as potential career opportunities.

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There are many courses, degrees and qualifications on offer at institutions all over the world. Understanding the differences and what each means is important for your decision-making. If you’re looking for a study path that focuses on practical skills and is career-oriented then you may want to consider a vocational course or degree. We explain what a vocational course is, what vocational degrees mean, vocational subject options and the types of careers or professions this can give you access to. 


What are vocational courses?


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 history, philosophy, or mathematics which can lead to a variety of professions. Vocational courses are specifically designed to equip students with the skills needed to enter the working world. Vocational courses are best for students who have a good idea of their career path and want to gain the knowledge to get there. 


Vocational qualifications and degrees have sometimes been thought of as less valuable or prestigious than other courses such as an academic or professional degree. However, this isn’t accurate and much depends on the level of the vocational course. Some vocational courses are the equivalent of an undergraduate degree or even a postgraduate programme. If you prefer to learn in a practical environment, then a vocational degree might be better suited to you in comparison to more traditional, academic courses.


What vocational courses can I take?


There are a wide variety of vocational subjects that you can study. Much will depend on what interests you and your abilities. There are some common and popular vocational degrees for international students, including:



These are just a few examples of vocational subjects and 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 qualification types are awarded for vocational degrees?


The qualification you gain following a vocational degree or course depends on the subject you choose and the organisation awarding the accreditation. Some examples of vocational qualifications* offered in the UK, and elsewhere, 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 to 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* to 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 isn’t always the case.


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


Some common examples of vocational NVQ courses include:



*Qualifications have been compared with British secondary and higher education equivalents. 


Why study for a vocational degree?


There are some of the major advantages to studying for a vocational degree. Not only do you gain experience, skills and knowledge ideal to launch a career, but you can also open up additional opportunities as well. 


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.


Prepare for university


You might want to go to university, but don’t yet have the necessary qualifications. A vocational degree 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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