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25 May 2006

Access courses remain an important route to higher education

Access courses are an important route into higher education, particularly for mature students, according to a report published by HEFCE today.

More than half of students who take access courses go on to further study, with 39 per cent progressing to higher education. This results in around a quarter of first-time mature entrants to full-time degree courses entering via access courses.

The report, ‘Pathways to higher education: Access courses’, describes patterns of progression into higher education of students who took access courses in 1998-99.

John Selby, HEFCE Director for Widening Participation, said: ‘This report is a timely recognition of the significant role that access courses play in encouraging mature students to go into higher education.’

Higher Education Minister, Bill Rammell, said: ‘I welcome this report. Access courses make an important contribution to widening participation, providing a “second chance” route into HE for learners who may have missed out on earlier opportunities.’

The Learning and Skill Council’s (LSC’s) Director of Adult Learning, Jon Gamble, said: ‘The LSC recognises the importance of access courses in supporting progression to higher education for a wide range of adult learners, and we have recently reiterated this importance at both national and regional level through our policy requirements and planning guidance. We welcome the recent report on progression from access courses into HE and look forward to working with HEFCE and QAA on the continuing development of Access provision’.

Attributes of access courses

Access courses, first established in the late 1970s, are designed to prepare mature students who have few or no appropriate qualifications to enter higher education. Most access courses last between six months and a year, and according to figures produced by the QAA there were more than 45,000 students on these courses in 2003-04.

Over half of students on access courses are studying combined subjects. Access courses are almost all provided at further education colleges. The majority (around two-thirds) of access course students are female, and typically they are in their 20s or early 30s.

Progression into higher education

Within five years of completing an access course, 39 per cent of students will have progressed into higher education. Nine out of ten of these students move to a different institution to continue studying, generally a university or other higher education institution. Students on access courses tend to study near their homes, and most go on to study at post-1992 universities.


1.    The report ‘Pathways to higher education: Access courses’ (HEFCE 2006/16) is the first in a series on the differing pathways into higher education.

2.   ‘Access to Higher Education’ courses are designed to prepare mature students who have few or no higher education entry-level qualifications for higher education. They are further education level qualifications. Most courses take a year to complete, but both shorter and longer courses are reported. Some access courses are designed to allow progress to particular higher education courses, such as Access to Law, others provide more general preparation for higher education. The final qualification of an access course is an Access to Higher Education certificate. These certificates can be awarded through a QAA Authorised Validating Agency or through another awarding body.