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Apprenticeship vs University: How To Choose What To Do Next
Wondering whether to go to university or start an apprenticeship? We take a look at the pros and cons of apprenticeships and university life.
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Trying to figure out whether an apprenticeship or a degree would be right for you? We take a look at the pros and cons of each to help you identify which route may be best for you and your future goals.
With university tuition fees at an all time high, many are looking for alternatives to university that still allow for great career progression. While tuition fees alone shouldn’t deter young people from studying for a degree, this is inevitably something people are considering when thinking about apprenticeships vs university.
Apprenticeships have grown in popularity in recent years, with New Census data revealing that apprenticeships were the highest qualification for 5.3% of people (2.6 million) across England and Wales in 2023.
But university remains the most popular option for school leavers, with the number of British 18-year-olds aiming to go to university directly from school continuing to rise at a record pace.
So, what's the right path for you: an apprenticeship or university?
What is an apprenticeship?
An apprenticeship essentially offers hands-on work experience as well as training, combining both paid work and study.
Apprentices are employed to do a real job while they study for a formal qualification, with at least 20% of their paid time spent ‘off-the-job’ receiving training to gain the skills needed to complete their apprenticeship.
Apprenticeships can take between one to five years to complete.
There are different apprenticeship levels which equate to different qualifications, with some requiring the apprentice to have received previous qualifications such as English or maths GCSEs.
The different apprenticeship levels are as follows:
Intermediate Level: 2 Equivalent education level: GCSE
Advanced Level: 3 Equivalent education level: A level
Higher Level: 4, 5, 6 and 7 Equivalent education level: Foundation degree and above
Degree Level: 6 and 7 Equivalent education level: Bachelor’s or master’s degree
What is a university degree?
A degree is an academic qualification classified as higher education, with university degrees ranging from level 6 qualifications such as a Bachelor’s degree to level 8 qualifications such as a doctorate (e.g. a PhD).
In the UK, an undergraduate degree (usually a student’s first degree) typically takes three years to complete, but this can vary depending on the type of degree and whether industrial placements are involved or the student opts to study abroad. Some courses such as medicine also take far longer to complete, however these are an exception.
The Bachelor’s degree is the most widely studied undergraduate qualification in the UK, giving students an in-depth understanding of one or more subjects.
What are the pros and cons of apprenticeships?
Advantages of apprenticeships
There is no denying that hands-on experience is extremely valuable, as you’ll be working alongside qualified, experienced professionals and acquiring the practical skills needed to excel in that particular role.
Your skillset will rapidly expand, and by the end of your apprenticeship you should be equipped with everything you need to forge a successful career in the relevant industry.
Whether you’re completing a trade apprenticeship or a fashion and textiles apprenticeship, the firsthand experience you’ll gain in your chosen area is a huge advantage of apprenticeships.
2. Receiving a salary
While apprentices unfortunately don’t always receive a great rate of pay - with the current National Minimum Wage rate for an apprentice being just £4.81 per hour - this is still a definite perk of apprenticeships.
As an apprentice, you are essentially being paid to learn - whereas at university, students rack up tuition fee debt.
3. Gaining industry-recognised qualifications and forming industry connections
The qualification you’ll gain at the end of your apprenticeship will show future employers that you have the necessary skills and knowledge to succeed in a relevant role, which will significantly improve your future job prospects.
Similarly, whilst gaining hands-on experience, you’ll form connections with industry professionals who may go on to alert you of any upcoming roles you may be interested in and can offer you support throughout your career.
4. Student discount
Did you know that apprentices are also able to get student discounts - despite not technically being ‘students’?
The NUS Apprentice Extra card is the only student discount card for apprentices and allows you to save whenever you spend, whether that’s 10% off your weekly grocery shop with Co-op or money off your bill when you dine out at the likes of Pizza Hut, Barburrito and Las Iguanas.
With an NUS Apprentice Extra card, you’ll get access to hundreds of discounts, deals and exclusive offers with both leading brands and local businesses.
Disadvantages of apprenticeships
You may get paid less than others
As mentioned above, whilst it’s great that you’ll receive a salary during your apprenticeship, this is typically quite a low rate of pay to begin with and you’ll likely be earning less than those you’re working with on-the-job.
When you qualify, your salary will increase in line with other recently qualified professionals - however this can take one to five years depending on how long the apprenticeship is.
2. You may potentially limit your career prospects
Whilst there are many transferable skills that can be acquired when undertaking an apprenticeship, it’s worth noting that qualifying in one specific trade or sector could limit your future job prospects. For this reason, we’d advise making sure your chosen apprenticeship is in an area you are keen to develop in.
3. Competitive entry
Depending on the type of apprenticeship you wish to embark on, there can be a lot of competition with some apprenticeships attracting a high number of applicants.
This means you may need to stand out from the crowd and show your dedication and hard work to secure a place on your chosen apprenticeship. Some of the most competitive apprenticeships in the UK include:
Higher Apprenticeships in Engineering
Apprenticeships in technology
What are the pros and cons of going to university?
Advantages of university
Increased earning potential
In many circumstances, a degree can lead to increased earnings over the course of a career, which is a huge selling point for many when weighing up whether to go to university or do an apprenticeship.
It should be noted, however, that this isn’t always the case - it can depend on factors such as the subject you study, your overall qualifications and more, however on average graduates are likely to earn more than non-graduates.
2. Increased employability
Going to university can boost your employability, with statistics showing that approximately 87% of university graduates are employed vs 71% of people without a degree.
It is also often the case that higher education opens people up to more job opportunities. By studying at university, you’ll gain vital skills and knowledge that employers are keen to gain in their workplace, such as time management, the ability to meet deadlines, both written and verbal communication skills, strong research skills and much more.
You'll also become extremely knowledgeable in your chosen subject area which is ideal if it is a vocational subject with a direct career path.
3. Transferable skills
One of the biggest advantages of studying at university is that you’ll gain transferable skills as well as becoming an expert in your chosen subject area.
Whether you’re studying maths or history, the skills you will develop during university will serve you well regardless of your career choice.
Transferable skills include critical thinking, communication, problem solving, the ability to research and independence.
4. Student discount
This one applies to both apprenticeships and university - student discount is a definite perk of both!
As a TOTUM member, you can get student discounts on everything from food and tech to fashion and travel!
You'll make huge savings with the help of student discount, which is definitely needed as a student on a strict budget.
Disadvantages of university
Fewer contact hours than you may expect
Many university degrees actually involve very few contact hours, meaning a lot of the time you'll be left to study independently. This can leave some feeling isolated, while others can struggle to motivate themselves to complete their work without being in a group setting.
You can of course make friends with people on your course and work with them in your university's communal areas when you're not in lectures or seminars, but it's worth noting that you may not actually receive as much contact time with your lecturers and tutors as you'd perhaps expect compared to when you studied for your A Levels and GCSEs.
2. Student loan debt
As mentioned, university tuition fees are currently at their highest, and many students also rely on maintenance loans throughout their studies.
This means, unless you and/or somebody else is paying for your tuition fees outright, you will likely be in a lot of debt by the time you graduate.
That being said, it's important to understand exactly how student finance works, and how you will repay your student loans. You will only begin repaying your student loan once you are earning a certain salary - currently the threshold is £27,295 per year.
So, while this may be a disadvantage, it shouldn't stop you from pursuing your studies if university sounds like the right place for you!
3. You may lack practical skills
While some degrees will require hands-on experience and work placements - such as medicine and teaching - not all degrees will help students to develop practical skills.
Apprenticeships on the other hand combine both practical teaching with theory, meaning apprentices may be more prepared for work environments.
University students can, however, gain practical skills outside of university through work experience opportunities, workshops or even shadowing professionals in the industry you're hoping to pursue a career in.
Should I do an apprenticeship or go to university?
Only you will be able to decide whether an apprenticeship or university is right for you, but to summarise here are our top tips:
Weigh up whether you're more academically inclined or excel when doing practical work - many university degrees require a significant amount of reading and essay writing, so this is something you may wish to consider.
Reflect on whether you would prefer work-based training and learning or to become an expert in a specific subject area.
If you know the type of career you would like to pursue, determine whether an apprenticeship or a degree would best support your job prospects.
Finally, remember there are both pros and cons to going to university and doing an apprenticeship, and there is always room to take a different direction later on if you wish to!
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