Short-cycle tertiary education

Principal characteristics

Programmes at ISCED level 5, or short-cycle tertiary education, are often designed to provide participants with professional knowledge, skills and competencies. Typically, they are practically-based, occupationally-specific and prepare students to enter the labour market. However, these programmes may also provide a pathway to other tertiary education programmes. Academic tertiary education programmes below the level of a Bachelor’s programme or equivalent are also classified as ISCED level 5.

Entry into ISCED level 5 programmes requires the successful completion of ISCED level 3 or 4 with access to tertiary education. Programmes at ISCED level 5 have more complex content than programmes at ISCED levels 3 and 4, but they are shorter and usually less theoretically-oriented than ISCED level 6 programmes.

Although ISCED level 5 programmes are usually designed to prepare for employment, they may give credit for transfer into ISCED level 6 or 7 programmes. Upon completion of these ISCED level 5 programmes, individuals may in some education systems continue their education at ISCED level 6 (Bachelor’s or equivalent level) or long first degree ISCED level 7 programmes (Master’s or equivalent level).

Programmes classified at ISCED level 5 may be referred to in many ways, for example: (higher) technical education, community college education, technician or advanced/higher vocational training, associate degree, or bac+2. For international comparability purposes the term ‘short-cycle tertiary education’ is used to label ISCED level 5.

Classification criteria

For the definition of short-cycle tertiary education, the following criteria are relevant:

Main criteria
a) Content of short-cycle tertiary education programmes;
b) Entry requirements; and
c) Minimum duration of level.

Subsidiary criteria
a) Institutional transition point; and
b) Typical duration of level.

ISCED level 5 captures the lowest level of tertiary education. The content of programmes at this level is more complex than in secondary (ISCED level 3) or post-secondary non-tertiary education (ISCED level 4), but less than in ISCED level 6 (Bachelor’s or equivalent level) programmes.

ISCED level 5 has a minimum duration of two years and is typically but not always shorter than three years. For education systems with modular programmes where qualifications are awarded by credit accumulation, a comparable amount of time and intensity would be required.

The transition point from non-tertiary to tertiary educational institutions can help to identify the boundary between upper secondary education (ISCED level 3), post-secondary non-tertiary education (ISCED level 4) and tertiary education. ISCED level 5 programmes are often provided by different educational institutions than ISCED level 6, 7 and 8 programmes.

Other programmes included in ISCED level 5

This level includes adult or continuing education programmes equivalent in complexity of content to the education given in programmes already classified at this level.

Complementary dimensions

Two dimensions differentiate education programmes at ISCED level 5:
• Programme orientation; and
• Level completion.

Programme orientation

The following two orientation categories are defined:
• General education; and
• Vocational education.
When definitions for academic and professional programmes have been developed, they will be used for the orientation categories at ISCED level 5 instead of general and vocational.

Level completion

Two level completion categories are defined for ISCED level 5:
• No completion of ISCED level 5: stage (or programme) at ISCED level 5 of less than two years’ duration, therefore insufficient for completion of ISCED level 5.
• Completion of ISCED level 5: programme at ISCED level 5 with duration of two or more years, therefore sufficient for completion of ISCED level 5.

Last updated on January 12, 2021