What’s The Difference Between A Diploma & A Degree?

Find out the difference and which one is right for you.

In the past, getting a degree was seen as ‘the’ way to get a good career. But times have changed and tons of other qualifications have entered the scene.

It can be daunting to choose the right course level, especially when the requirements for your industry aren’t so clear. In fact, degrees for some jobs aren’t even necessary.

Today, we’ll tell you the difference between a degree and a diploma, plus a spotlight on other kinds of qualifications out there.

What Is the Difference Between A Degree and a Diploma?

Degree courses are typically three to six years, while diplomas are one to two years. Entry for degrees is typically on a yearly basis in the UK, especially around the summertime, whereas diplomas may have multiple points of entry throughout the year.

Also, degrees are typically more expensive than diplomas due to the course content and length of time to complete them. There are of course various types of degrees and diplomas to look out for.

This short video explains it too:

Before we dive into the differences between a degree and a diploma in further detail, it’s worth putting into context what levels of education there are and what international qualifications are equivalent to in the UK.

The levels of study in the UK

  • Entry-level

    • Foundation courses

  • Level 1

    • GCSE (grades D – G or 3 – 1)

    • Key skills level 1

    • NVQ level 1

    • Skills for life level 1

    • Foundation diploma

    • BTEC award, certificate, and diploma level 1

    • Foundation learning level 1

    • Functional skills level 1

    • Cambridge National level 1

  • Level 2

    • GCSE (grades A* – C)

    • Key skills level 2

    • NVQ level 2

    • Skills for life level 2

    • Higher diploma

    • BTEC award, certificate and diploma level 2

    • Functional skills level 2

    • Cambridge National level 2

    • Cambridge Technical level 2

    • Intermediate apprenticeship

  • Level 3

    • A levels

    • International Baccalaureate

    • BTEC awards, certificates and diplomas at level 3

    • BTEC nationals

    • OCR nationals

    • NVQs at level 3

    • Advanced apprenticeship

  • Level 4

    • Certificates of higher education

    • BTEC professional diplomas certificates and awards

    • HNCs

    • NVQs at level 4

    • Year 1 of a Foundation degree

    • Higher apprenticeship

  • Level 5

    • HNDs

    • Other higher diplomas

    • BTEC professional diplomas, certificates, and awards

    • Year 2 of a Foundation degree

  • Level 6

    • BTEC advanced professional diplomas, certificates, and awards

    • DipHE (diploma of higher education)

    • Bachelor’s degree e.g BA (Hons)

  • Level 7

    • BTEC advanced professional diplomas, certificates and awards

    • Postgraduate certificate

    • Masters degree

What is a degree?

An undergraduate degree is a type of higher education qualification offered by universities and some colleges. They typically start at level four or five in the UK educational system and take an average of 3-4 years to complete.

Typically, a student will pick a choice of study, also known as their ‘major’, and get a higher level qualification in that subject area.

Requirements for degrees, due to their depth of subject knowledge, often need higher entry requirements than a diploma

What happens after finishing a degree?

Once you’ve completed an undergraduate degree, you can pursue a Master’s Degree or Postgraduate Diploma. These typically take one-two years to complete.

Otherwise, you can go straight into employment.

What’s the difference between undergraduate and postgraduate study?

An undergraduate course is pursued straight out of sixth form or college. Requirements vary and are almost always taken before doing a Master’s degree. There are things to consider before signing up for a masters degree too, like time management, length of study, prospects and more.

Read: Should I study abroad?

What is an accredited degree?

You may see ‘accredited degree’ thrown around in some places. An accredited degree is a degree that has been formally approved by a professional or awarding body. An example is the BACP (British Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy).

Courses accreditation isn’t just limited to degrees, you can achieve accredited diplomas. If a course is accredited, it’s usually quite specific and is likely to improve your prospects in finding a job in the intended field.

Benefits of a degree

  • Salaries are typically higher if you finish a degree

  • You’ll stand out against other candidates who don’t have a degree (though this is field dependent and some may value hands-on experience more, or both)

  • Specific fields like medicine, engineering, and architecture require one

  • Networking opportunities

  • The chance to work on placement if the course allows for this

What is a diploma?

A diploma is a qualification that is undertaken before a degree (generally speaking). Typically, a diploma is pursued at level 5 level just after sixth form or college but can be taken after GCSEs too. They take around one or two years to complete.

It provides you with enough information to enter a field that doesn’t require a degree, but less subject knowledge than a degree. They’re beneficial for field-specific industries and jobs, meaning you don’t have to achieve the highest level of qualification to get your foot through the door.

What is a diploma equivalent to?

If you’re wondering what level is a diploma, it typically equals levels 3, 4 or 5. It typically depends on which part of your education you’re at. A level 4 or 5 is also equivalent to a first or second year of a degree respectively.

What is a diploma of higher education?

A diploma of higher education (branded as an (DipHE) is equivalent to a level 5 or 6, essentially a second or third year of a degree. It usually takes around one year to complete.

Benefits of a diploma

  • Diplomas take less time to complete

  • Multiple points of entry throughout the year

  • Typically less expensive than a degree

  • It may be the only requirement you need for certain jobs, meaning you can enter the field faster.

Degree and Diploma — Which One to Choose?

This completely depends on your field of study and personal preference. If your industry requires a degree, at least of the level of job you wish to pursue, then getting a degree would be necessary.

Degrees require a lot more work generally. If you think this could be overwhelming, check out our 10 best study planner apps that’ll help keep you on track.

But if you have tons of experience under your belt already, then a diploma can show employers you studied the subject at a decent level too. It also takes less time to complete.

If you’re really unsure on what course to pursue or if you don’t know what course is offered at what level, then this video is incredibly useful at explaining it:

Degree and Diploma — Which is better?

This completely depends on your goals.

A degree is, technically speaking, ‘better’ because it achieves a higher level of study. But that doesn’t mean it’s necessarily the right path.

If your career path doesn’t require a degree (or any qualifications for that matter), but you still want to study it, then a diploma is all you need. Degrees are still fantastic for gaining a well-rounded education in your chosen field and experiencing university life too.

Ask yourselves these questions before committing yourself to a degree or diploma:

  1. Will I enjoy studying the subject?

  2. How do I study best?

  3. Where should I study?

  4. Is the course accredited?

  5. What level of knowledge is needed for the job I want?

Where to get advice on degrees and diplomas

Besides the Student Beans blog being a great resource for students (if we do say so ourselves), the following areas are great to get more information from:

  • Open days

    • You can get a vibe of the campus, course and ask all of your questions directly

  • Students

    • Know someone who studies a degree or diploma right now? Ask them and see what they think

  • Jobs

    • Look at the job descriptions of the ones you want to apply to. Find out which ones need a degree or diploma from there.

We hope this has given you some food for thought on which type of course to pursue. If you’re about to embark on a course, get ready by using our discounts on stationery!