Why choose an apprenticeship over university?

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Two women discussing apprenticeships

Whether you’re a school-leaver trying to decide on your next steps in life, someone wanting a change in career or to upskill to help with your working future, there are various options that you could consider. Many people assume that university is the only route to get the career or future that they want, but that isn’t necessarily the case.

In this article, we look at how apprenticeships could a great option for a variety of different people as they move forward with their career plans, with up to degree-level qualifications gained as you work and earn at the same time.

The qualifications available with apprenticeships or university

It’s a common misconception that apprenticeships are for school-leavers only and are limited in scope to a few different traditional trades or career paths, with qualifications that aren’t comparable to other types of further or higher education. However, the reality is that there is no upper age limit for apprentices and there are several different levels of qualification available through apprenticeships, as outlined below:

  • Intermediate (Level 2) – Equivalent to GCSEs
  • Advanced (Level 3) – Equivalent to A-levels
  • Higher (Levels 4-7) – Foundation degree and above
  • Degree (Levels 6-7) – Bachelor’s or master’s degree

This means that with a higher or degree level apprenticeship, someone can gain an equivalent qualification to what they would achieve if they graduated from university.

The finances: apprenticeships or university

The costs of studying at university are always rising, with tuition costs alone usually being upwards of £9,000 a year in England, which many people use student loans to cover. If there are also housing and living costs to add into the scenario, usually paid for, at least in part, by maintenance loans, it can mean that a three-year undergraduate degree course can leave someone with an average student loan debt of around £45,000, according to 2021 figures.

Interest is applied to student loans, with the student starting to repay the amount owed when they earn over the current threshold once their studies are finished. From April 2023, the threshold for repayment starts with those earning at least £27,295 per annum, who will repay 9% of what they earn above this threshold, from the April following their graduation or leaving their studies. Those earning under this amount will not start repaying their student loan until they meet the threshold, but their loan will continue to have interest added.

These figures can feel very daunting, and for those who perhaps aren’t 100% sure of what field they want to study or what their career plans could be afterwards, it can seem like an expensive option.

For those who still want to gain a qualification of the same level but don’t want to take out student loans, a degree apprenticeship could be a great option.

With a degree apprentices, there are no tuition fees. As you work alongside the study (which is at least 20% of the working hours), you actually get paid to earn the qualification too.

The rates of pay for an apprentice can depend on:

  • The amount of time that they are into the apprenticeship, as the first year has a different minimum rate to any subsequent years of the programme
  • The age of the apprentice, as the minimum hourly rate for years two and onwards of the programme depends on the current minimum wage, which varies by age
  • The employer, as although there are minimum hourly rates, many employers choose to pay their apprentices more than this

Taking the current list of higher degree vacancy listings on the government website, apprenticeship vacancies at this level are being advertised with starting salaries of anything between £15,000 per year to upwards of £44,000 per year.

Usually, apprentices work between 30-40 hours a week during their apprenticeship, although you also receive the same annual leave entitlement as other employees. It’s also worth remembering that this includes study or off-the-job training time, which the employer pays at the same rate as when at work.

Skills gained: apprenticeships or university

Depending on the university course, there might be skills-based modules and assessments, but most courses mainly consist of theory and academic writing. Some courses may include some short work placements or work experience as part of the requirement.

There are some university degrees, such as in healthcare or teaching, where work placements are a fuller part of the course.

With an apprenticeship, you are working for an employer from the very start of the programme, so you learn the skills needed for the role on-the-job. There are also more general soft skills that you can gain whilst working during an apprenticeship, such as teamwork, written and verbal communication, problem-solving and more. You also gain skills from the off-the-job training portion of the programme, as part of the qualification that you gain, such as organisation and presentation skills.

Longer-term career: apprenticeship or university

When it comes to deciding on the next step in your education or career, it’s also worth bearing in mind not just the short-term finances of your choice, such as how much it costs at Uni or how much you earn during your apprenticeship, but also the longer-term earning potential of the options and how your career could develop down the line.

In different times, people who went to university were virtually guaranteed a job when they graduated, almost regardless of what they studied. However, that is certainly no longer the case, apart from in degree courses with a known industry workforce shortage. While many students also work part-time while they study to help with living costs or tuition fees, it’s often not in the field that they want a career in. So, when it comes to finding a job that starts them on the path they would choose, they don’t usually have much in the way of relevant work experience by the time they graduate and have to start from scratch when applying for roles. Data shows that around 80% of university graduates were in employment in 2021.

For apprentices, not only do they have the duration of the apprenticeship as highly relevant work experience, many of them are simply kept on by their employer once they finish the programme. Employers invest in apprentices for the duration of the apprenticeship and reap the benefits of having enthusiastic and talented people on the team, so often wish to keep the apprentices on as members of staff into the future too. 76% of employers report an increase in productivity when employing apprentices and data shows that around 90% of apprentices stay in employment after their programme is completed.

Longer-term, a report done by City & Guilds indicates that it takes an average of five years for an apprentice to reach management level, so the earning potential is there for the future too.

Making a decision: degree apprenticeship or university

Everyone is different, so what is right for one person might not be for the next. When it comes to making a decision between university or a degree apprenticeship, it could be worth giving both options some thought.

One of the main considerations will be the career you’re thinking of starting and what field it is in. It’s worth exploring the routes into the kind of role you’re looking at and whether they can be reached through apprenticeships.

If you’re thinking of a potential career in the trades, you can find out more about trade apprenticeships and start the process of finding an apprenticeship near you on our Get In hub.


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