Working with Higher Education Institutions (HEIs) to build on the mental health support workforce.

Accessing higher education

The mental health support workforce will have acquired considerable knowledge about care, understand the way services work (such as shift patterns and weekend working) and the demands of providing support to patients – as well as the rewards. Consequently, they often make excellent pre-registration students who are less likely to quit courses and more likely, on qualifying, to remain working for their host trust. They can also be more likely from under-represented groups.

HEIs should take account of the experience and informal (i.e., non-qualification based) learning support staff have acquired at work, as part of their widening participation policies, although this is not always the case. Degrees are tough academic programmes and students must hold the necessary qualifications to meet the standards of study, including functional skills (English and Maths).

The mental health support workforce can have qualifications acquired at work, such as the old National Vocational Qualifications or the current Diploma through the Senior Healthcare Support Worker standard.

Prospective students should find original copies of their qualifications and will need to check two things:

  • Whether their qualifications are equivalent to A Levels (technically speaking that they are at Registered Qualification Framework (RQF) Level 3) and that they have the necessary functional skills.
  • All qualifications provide learners with credits (one credit is worth an equivalent of ten hour of study). Students will need to check whether the credits they have are equivalent to the UCAS points asked by the HEI. A good HEI will take account of prior experience if there is a small shortfall. In other cases, support staff may have to “top up” to meet the shortfall in credits. Support staff like Assistant Practitioners with Foundation Degrees will have more credits than required for degrees and should be able to enter a programme at year 2 – recognising their prior study.

Routes into higher education

The diagram below shows the various routes possible and explains the typical qualification levels of staff at different bands.

Band 2

Although some band 2 staff may possess higher qualifications than necessary for the role, it would not be the case that someone with a RQF Level 2 qualification (the normal entry-requirement to band 2) would be in a position to apply to a pre-registration degree even with additional credits acquired through a Bridging or Access course (described below). The progression route for someone employed in an Agenda for Change band 2 role would normally be to progress to band 3, which will also be an entry point into NHS careers in many trusts.

Band 3

Staff in band 3 may already possess Level 3 qualifications such as A Levels, or acquire them through workplace learning, most likely via the Senior Healthcare Support Worker Apprenticeship which includes the Level 3 Diploma in Healthcare Support (worth 60 credits) and the Care Certificate.

They will also access other learning related to their job through in-house training, as well as direct knowledge and experience of healthcare. Band 3 staff with Level 3 qualification(s) and healthcare experience should be able to apply directly to enter a pre-registration health or social care degree programme.

It may, however, be the case that the credits they possess, although at Level 3, are not equivalent to the credits required by the course they wish to join: in other words, there is a gap between credits and the course’s UCAS points. In every case staff must possess Level 2 functional skills.

A good HEI should recognise the experience and other learning the support worker has acquired whilst working in considering whether to offer an interview of not. Where they do – at any level - this is described as Accreditation of Prior Experience and Learning (APEL), or sometime Recognition of Prior Experience and Learning (REPL), but this is not always the case. There is not currently a standard or national framework so it is at the discretion of individual institutions if and how they do this. Health Education England are currently working on creating a national standard for APEL, to stay up to date on progress email

The Nursing and Midwifery council for example has stated that you can APEL up to year 2 which has helped.  

There is an option to “top up” the missing credits by undertaking additional formal learning. There are a growing number of options here:

  • If available, complete the Higher Development Award. This course is free and is worth 17 credits at Level 4. This however isn’t offered everywhere but Health Education England are currently working to get it nationalised.
  • Study on an Access to Nursing or Access to Higher Education programme or equivalent. These types of courses are open to all and can be run by any provider. It usually lasts 9 months or so and incurs a cost. Do research on the provider before you choose that it suits your need and is well recognised.
  • If available, complete a dedicated Bridging Programme, such as that being piloted for Occupational Therapy, although these are currently rare and require self-funding.

Ideally trusts, education providers of level 3 qualifications and HEIs in a locality will work together to help staff progress and ensure consistent recognition of learning. For more details on the networks where this can be facilitated see the Networks section of this toolkit.

Band 4

Staff in band 4 with a Level 5 qualification (most likely a foundation degree) have acquired an award that is equivalent to half an undergraduate degree, and this should be recognised when such staff apply to degrees, so that learning does not need to be repeated. In such cases it would be expected that staff would enter the second year of a degree (as much as 18-months of the degree could be adjusted for) though actual practice varies by HEI.

Some staff also “step off” of a foundation degree after one year with a Level 4 qualification (such as a Certificate of Higher Education). Such staff will have sufficient credits to apply to a degree but will start at year 1.

Pre-registration students

Attrition rates for a number of degrees can be high. Often students who leave degrees are lost to healthcare. There is a potential pathway for such students into support roles if local vacancies exist and there are relationships between employers and HEIs. For more guidance on recruitment to the mental health support workforce see the Recruitment section of this toolkit.

checklist Working with HEIs: To Do List

Assess the approach taken by your region’s HEIs to understand what is on offer – speak to your HR team for advice and access the relevant networks and refer to the Networks section of this toolkit.