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Diplomas and Degrees: What’s the difference?

Written by NDA senior tutor, Vicky McClymont

Choosing which course to study (and indeed, where) can be a daunting task at the best of times, but throw in the confusion of academic qualification terminology such as Diploma, Degree, Diploma of Higher Education (DipHE) or Higher National Diploma (HND), you’d be forgiven in trying to demystify what these terms actually mean as well as trying to determine which level of study is best suited for you.

Here at the National Design Academy, we are fortunate enough to teach across a broad spectrum of qualification levels, as well as course subjects.  The qualification level structure of our courses allows students to undertake a full progression route from FE (Further Education) level, through to undergraduate HE (Higher Education), finishing at postgraduate study.  Many of our students follow this progression route, but some of the common questions we receive when students progress from our Diploma course to a Degree, is “What’s the difference between the two courses?” and “What can I expect from studying a Degree?”  Here, we aim to unravel what sets these two levels apart and help you to determine which qualification is best for you.




Before we look at the difference between a Diploma and a Degree, it is probably best to acknowledge what is meant by different ‘levels’ of study, and here, we will refer to those levels associated with England, Wales and Northern Ireland (Scotland has a slightly different level structure).

In England, Wales and Northern Ireland, there are eight levels of study, and in an academic sense, a level of study reflects the depth of knowledge taught at each stage, as well as the quality of student output expected.  The level structure is comparable to the different stages of the education system, and can be broken down as such:

Level 1 – G.C.S.E level (grades D-G, or 3-1)

Level 2 – G.C.S.E level (grades A*-C, or 9-4)

Level 3 – AS and A level

Level 4 – The first year of an undergraduate Degree

Level 5 – The second year of an undergraduate Degree

Level 6 – The third year of an undergraduate Degree

Level 7 – A Master’s Degree

Level 8 – A Doctorate or PhD


What is a Diploma?

Diploma, Diploma of Higher Education, Higher National Diploma, Graduate Diploma; all different qualification levels but consistent in their terminology – so what actually is a Diploma, what level of study does it equate to, and is it right for me?

A Diploma qualification refers to the number of learning credits a student will study and aim to achieve in a course, but a Diploma can be awarded for any level, i.e. a Level 2 Diploma, Level 3 Diploma and so on.  A student studying a Level 3 Diploma, for example, will study a course equivalent to A-Level standard, and is also a qualification which can be used for entry on to a Degree course.

The NDA delivers all of their professional Diploma qualifications to Level 3 standards; this means that there are certain expectations and requirements that students must meet (set not only by the NDA, but also by the awarding body, AIM Awards).  It is important for a student to acknowledge when they undertake any type of formal education (either with the NDA or otherwise), as to what level the course is to be studied at, as this gives the student clear expectations as to the quality, depth, knowledge and understanding of a subject expected within the submission of work.



Is a Diploma course right for me?

Deciding to study any course is a big decision in itself (particularly if you are doing this alongside a busy work and/or home life) so before undertaking such a commitment, it is important to make sure that the course is the right one for you.

Below are a few questions to ask yourself before enrolling on a Diploma course:

  1. Is the subject one that I will enjoy and have an interest in?

Whatever your motive for undertaking a course (whether it is to simply develop your knowledge, or to use the course as a stepping stone in developing or changing your career) it is so important that you enjoy the topic.  The effort, dedication and successful outcome of your course largely depends on the level of enjoyment and interest you have in the topic.

  1. What is the best way to study, for me?

Long gone are the days where being present in a classroom environment is the only way to learn and achieve those longed-for qualifications.  The education environment has changed so much that courses can be studied full-time, part-time, in a classroom, by distance learning or a combination of the above (depending on the educational provider).  All NDA courses are studied via distance learning, with the additional bonus that any of our professional Diploma courses can also be studied via an intensive studio-based delivery.  This provides students with lots of options to determine which mode of study is best for them.

  1. Where should I study?

Along with the benefit of flexible learning modes (i.e. distance learning) this makes it easy for lots of students to now be able to study from home, rather than having their options narrowed to institutions located near home.  Being able to study via distance learning opens up so many opportunities for students, therefore location of the institution no longer becomes an issue.

  1. Is the course accredited?

Committing yourself to studying for a period of time (whether this be months or years) needs to be worth it in the long-run.  Why undertake a course if you are not going to be certified or accredited for the work you undertake?  Ensuring you undertake an accredited course is particularly important if you are intending to study at a higher level following the successful completion of your Diploma course.  In order to study at Degree level, you will need to evidence that you have undertaken an accredited qualification equivalent to A-Level standard (whether this be an A-Level, a Level 3 Diploma, a BTEC, Level 3 NVQ, for example).  Some courses that can be studied, particularly online, are not accredited by a recognised organisation – it is important to check before you start the course, whether it is accredited or not as this could impact upon the success of your application to higher study.  All NDA professional Diploma courses are accredited by AIM Awards.

  1. What level of knowledge do I need and what are the expectations of me?

As with any course, it is the journey of learning that is most important, rather than where you start from.  Many Diploma courses (such as those offered by the NDA) don’t require students to have any prior knowledge of the subject they study, but there is an expectation that students will be able to equip themselves properly to the level of study.

A course delivered at a Level 3 standard will ask students to evidence their understanding, interpretation and knowledge in a number of ways, using certain terminology appropriate to the level.  Further down in the blog, you will see a comparison table of terminology required and used at Diploma (Level 3) and Degree level.



What is a Degree?

A Degree course is the stage in your education where you develop key skills, enhance your knowledge and communication in a certain subject, and become more critical in your thinking.  The level of study has a strength in academia (even in creative subjects) and from a design perspective, encourages students to become more conceptual and to challenge preconceived ideas.

In order to study on a Degree course, entry requirements will necessitate a student to evidence an accredited qualification, equivalent to Level 3 study, or in some cases, allow a student (mature) to demonstrate relevant industry experience by submission of a portfolio.

A standard Degree course (i.e. a BA (Hons) or BSc) consists of three levels of study (Levels 4, 5 and 6) with each level of study building on the knowledge, depth, and enquiry undertaken previously.  Level 4 study allows students to develop their overall learning skills, to develop an awareness and understanding of a broad range of subject knowledge, research methods, presentation methods, and in a design-related capacity, to enhance design understanding, creative development and conceptual consolidation.  Level 5 study builds on this initial foundation, enhancing the breadth and depth of study, building on theory and exploration, as well as developing a student’s key analytical and critiquing skills.  Level 6 encompasses all of the above, but again, the expectations are heightened, usually following an independent study path.

What is important to understand when undertaking a Degree course, however, is this isn’t simply just a “Diploma with a bit more” or a “Diploma +”.  The same goes for the transition from Level 4 to Level 5, and Level 5 to Level 6.  The level is not the same as before but with a bit more added on; the expectation, the outcome, the depth, the breadth, the exploration, the critique, the analysis – this is all enhanced, challenged and assessed in a different, more sophisticated manner, and the work produced by the student should reflect this.


A comparison of terminology

In order to compare the levels of study and expectations required between a Diploma and Degree course, the below table gives an indication of the type of terminology you would expect to see.  The table should give a clear indication as to how assignments are written, how Tutors/assessors will critique your work and how the output of student work should continually develop to reflect the requirements of higher levels of study.

As noted above, embarking on further or higher education is a decision that should be considered carefully, and be considered from the approach of whether you, as a student, feel confident and capable of achieving the standards required.  There are no expectations that a student should be fully equipped to be able to meet the standards required immediately from the very outset of a course; the skills, knowledge and understanding of the subject will be developed throughout the course with the support of Tutors, but it is always good to have an idea of what the expectations are from the outset, so you, as the student, know what you need to achieve.

We hope this blog has helped in the understanding of the difference between Diploma and Degree level study, and assisted in the decision as to which level of study is best for you. To see our Diplomas and Degrees, you can visit our website!

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3 responses

  1. I love that the explanation is delivered in a succinct manner.

    My experience of a degree was, sadly, not as laid out above. I found tutors to be wholly unsupportive and that I was expected to ‘just know’ the answers without any training. My experience tarred my view of higher education and left me feeling like it was a complete waste of time, energy and money.

    Having said all of that, I wish I had found this course first!

    I am currently studying at Diploma level and love the topic of Interior Design, even the technical drawing (which I thought I’d do terribly at) is really well explained with excellent resources. If I could change things, I would like to have done this Diploma study years ago and to be studying for my degree or even masters in Interior Design now. If the course runs as explained above, it sounds like a much better deal than the one I received.

  2. Very good article on the latest trending topics. It was really good content. This is one of the most incredible blogs I’ve read in a very long time.

  3. Thankyou Vicky,
    Your Blog has answered all my questions and has resolved all my doubts.
    I am a 46 year old man, I have been a Chef since leaving High School in 1990. Due to a serious injury I have had to change careers, it’s quite late in life but if I do the hard work now at Uni I could still have a good 15 to 20 years work left in me yet.
    Thanks again Vicky

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