If you find yourself seeking professional careers advice to help you decide what you should do after leaving school or college, then you are not alone. Here at FutureSmart Careers, our advisers have been providing career advice and guidance to students over many years and one of the most common questions that students ask is whether it is better to go to university or to do an apprenticeship?
There is, in fact, no right or wrong answer to this question, but making a choice that is right for you isn’t necessarily going to be an easy task and it will require some careful research, weighing up the pros and cons and thinking about what you want from your life and your career along the way.
Before we get started, let’s consider what each option offers along with some of associated benefits.
The university route
The university pathway usually involves a structured programme of study delivered by Higher or Further Education institutions and leads to the award of an academic degree. Most school leavers apply to study a Bachelor’s degree and this usually involves studying for three or four years on a full-time basis, although there are some two-year accelerated courses and distance learning options available too. A Bachelor’s degree is also known as a ‘first degree’ or an ‘undergraduate degree’ and most courses award either a Bachelor of Arts (BA Hons) or Bachelor of Science (BSc Hons) qualification. Other degrees include Foundation degrees (usually one or two year courses taken before or forming the first part of a Bachelor's degree); postgraduate Master's degrees (usually one or two year courses taken after a first degree) and PhDs or Doctorates. the highest level of postgraduate qualification.
The advantages of attending university include the thousands of courses available and the wide range of institutions to choose from. There will be a course and location to suit most people's interests, academic needs and lifestyle. A degree will often also provide a range of highly transferable and useful employability skills, such as the ability to research and critically evaluate information, generate new ideas, organise information and communicate clearly in writing and verbally. If you do decide to live away from home, as many undergraduates do, you could also gain some valuable life skills such as being independent, managing a budget and building new relationships. A degree course could also help to broaden your career options as many employers will hire graduates with any degree subject.
The apprenticeship route
An apprenticeship refers to a structured training programme for a specific career carried out by a learner under an employer's supervision. Depending on the role, it typically follows a more traditional working pattern, such as 9 till 5, Monday to Friday. Apprentices complete on-the-job training and are paid wages for the work completed. Apprenticeships are available from level 2 (equivalent to GCSEs) to level 7 (Master’s degree level).
In addition to practical training, an apprenticeship could also include tests, interviews, coursework, and an end-point assessment, all of which can help the apprentice to get the knowledge, skills, and behaviours required for a longer-term career role.
This route is a great choice for individuals wanting to enjoy the benefits of getting straight into work, earning while they learn, having a more practical, hands-on learning experience and who want to avoid rising tuition fees.
So now we’ve covered the basic outline of each option and the common benefits associated with them, how can you now decide which is best for you? To help you with this question, our advisers at FutureSmart Careers have put together some key questions. So, sit down, have a read of each, and take time to carefully consider your thoughts.
University or Apprenticeship? Questions to ask yourself…
#1 — What are my career aspirations?
An excellent place to start when trying to decide between “apprenticeship versus university” is to consider whether you have any careers in mind. If you have a clear idea about what you want to achieve in your future, this could make your decision easier. While many careers offer the choice of studying for a full-time university degree or completing an apprenticeship, there are certain careers where a university degree is mandatory but others where an apprenticeship will make more sense.
For instance, if you want to become a doctor of medicine or veterinary surgeon, there are some very specific qualifications that you will need to gain and, at the time of writing, these can only be acquired through full time university study. However, if you want to qualify as an Electrician, a 4-year apprenticeship with on-the-job training is the electrical industry’s preferred entry route to this career and therefore would be a better choice than a completing a full time course.
If you do have a job role in mind, you could first investigate relevant degree courses but also find out if there is an apprenticeship that could also cater to your needs and requirements. Today there are relevant degree courses and apprenticeships available for almost every employment sector from nursing and digital marketing to surveying and accountancy. New apprenticeships are being developed and launched every day and there has been tremendous growth in the number of apprenticeships available today compared to a few years ago.
But, if like many young people, you don’t have the slightest idea about which career you want to end up in yet, that is also okay. In this case, choosing a subject you will enjoy at university could provide you with more time to explore different careers and, at the same time, you could acquire a range of transferable skills from your studies which could be adapted to a wide variety of careers. Internships and placements years with employers can also provide valuable insights into different workplaces to help with decision making while providing some work-based experience to put on your CV.
#2 — Which study option better suits my financial goals?
Another important question centres around finances. Let’s start with university. This form of education will cost you and it’s no small amount. According to Save the Student, for the majority of UK students, the fees for studying a degree will cost you around £9,250 per year. And with most courses lasting three years, this will amount to around £27,750. The cost is often much higher for international students and university fees could also increase year upon year.
And then there are the costs of living if you’re planning to study away from home. While food, accommodation and other living costs will vary from person to person, Save the Student reports that the average annual living cost per student is around £9,720 (£29,160 over the course of three years). So, if you take university tuition fees and add them to the cost of student living, this could equates to a total of around £56,910 to get a degree.
While this is a large sum of money, it might also be more affordable than you think. Martin Lewis of Money Saving Expert says that the price tag of university is “largely irrelevant ....as what you pay back solely depends on what you earn after university”. There are loans for tuition fees and living costs and these are only paid back when your earnings are over £27,295 a year and then you only pay back 9% of anything earned over that threshold. For example, for someone currently earning £30,000 a year, they will only pay back £243 a year (or £20.28 per month or £4.68 per week). The UK Government has also estimated that around 45% of students will never pay their loans back in full. To help with the costs is it also worth bearing in mind that you might also be eligible for scholarships, bursaries, and grants which can help reduce the amount you need to borrow.
If, instead of tuition fees and loan repayments, you’d rather earn while you learn, then an apprenticeship will undoubtedly trump this round. The government and the employer will fund your training and if you are on a degree apprenticeship this means that they will fund your degree, so you won’t have to pay a penny. In fact, you’ll make money because on an apprenticeship you will also receive at least the national minimum wage for apprentices (currently £4.81 per hour) and many employers will pay much more than this, making an apprenticeship a great option for those wanting to start earning right away.
#3 - What type of learner am I?
The next factor to consider when trying to decide whether university or an apprenticeship is the right path is to think about your preferred learning style as they have a different approach to how learning is delivered, how skills are evaluated and how qualifications are gained.
University provides an academic style of learning, typically involving lectures, seminars, tutorials, workshops and sometimes lab and fieldwork. Courses can be a mixture of theoretical and practical, with some including work placements. When it comes to assessments, methods can include written essays, exams, and research projects. If the student passes the required number of modules, they will graduate and be awarded the degree qualification for their course.
Apprenticeships, on the other hand, can offer a more hands-on, experiential approach to learning and typically most of the skills and knowledge are acquired by carrying out the actual job in question. The employer could provide further development through other activities such as observations, practical assessments, and interviews. At least 20% of the apprenticeship is provided through off-the-job training and this can include courses to support learning and additional qualifications could be gained through these.
As an apprentice progresses, the employer will decide if the learner has met the requirements for completing the apprenticeship and gaining relevant certification – usually this is done in an ‘end point assessment’.
For some, while on the job training is the perfect way to learn, it can also mean that an apprentice carries a heavy responsibility and commitment, not only by doing a 9-5 job but also by having to complete a number of assignments alongside this. This can be especially true of higher and degree apprenticeships, which offer the chance to gain higher level qualifications.
Based on the above, consider how best you learn and which route is best suited to your learning style.
#4 - What kind of experience do I want?
Another consideration is the difference in lifestyles and experiences associated with university and apprenticeships. If you want to continue your academic studies, meet students from all over the world, immerse yourself in a new town or city, learn new life skills, gain independence, and enjoy a vibrant social life, university life may be for you.
But if you are raring to dive head first into the world of work, adjust to a working environment and routine, mix with colleagues from a range of backgrounds and ages, and start earning some money, as an apprentice, you can expect just this.
No experience is better than the other, but it’s important to really consider what kind of lifestyle you want to live and the kinds of experiences you want to have.
#5 - What kind of application process do I want to go through?
University and apprenticeship application processes may require you to demonstrate different aspects of yourself. If you are applying to university, the emphasis is usually on your academic skills and interests while for an apprenticeship an employer will assess your personal qualities and general strengths. Which would you be more comfortable writing or talking about?
For university, the application window is fixed (September to January for most courses) while for apprenticeships it can be much more open and variable. A number of apprenticeships are even sometimes filled by word of mouth (especially in the trades) and there is no central application process unlike university where almost all UK applications go through UCAS. How would you feel about this?
Additionally, for some apprenticeships, it could be almost impossible to know whether there will be lots of applicants, whereas you can usually find this data for university courses. University applications also give you the option to not only apply for up to five courses at once, but also to have a back up ‘insurance choice’ if your first chiocie falls through. There is no such safety net in place with apprenticeships and for some this makes this a more challenging application process to go through.
Finally, most apprentice employers want to see that you have understanding of the career area already and ideally that you have had some work experience in it or at least something that is relatable. So if an apprenticeship is top of your list, you should consider how you will get this experience organised. For university courses, work experience is usually only essential or preferred for vocational courses such as Medicine, Nursing and Architecture etc and other courses can be more flexible about whether you have had any experience or not.
Apprenticeship vs university: making the decision
After researching a range of options, weighing up some pros and cons and talking to people who are well informed and can help you gain more accurate insights, hopefully you should start to feel more confident about whether the university or apprenticeship route is the better choice for you.
The important thing to remember is that it is acceptable to be unsure until you have gathered all of the necessary information, and it is also acceptable to change your mind. Career paths are rarely linear, and it is unrealistic for most people to have everything figured out and their entire lives perfectly planned before the age of 18. You'll meet many people in life who have achieved their career goals at various ages and through a variety of paths. Keep this in mind, and if you remain curious and open-minded about career opportunities and possibilities, you'll be well on your way to your own successful and happy career, whether through an apprenticeship or a degree course to get you started on the way.