Alternatives to university

Daniel Higginbotham, Editor
August, 2017

If the prospect of student debt and full-time study for the next three years make university seem less appealing, you've many other options

When considering what to do after your A-levels, it's worth noting that some employers offer training programmes aimed at school and college leavers. As the terms used to advertise these programmes are often interchangeable, be sure to check with the company to find out what they're offering and what they'll be expecting from you in return.

No matter what the programme is called, you'll find numerous benefits that make them excellent alternatives to university. You can:

  • learn while working and build job-specific skills from the outset
  • achieve qualifications as you earn a salary
  • increase your lifetime earnings
  • take advantage of opportunities for career progression
  • avoid student debt.

Higher apprenticeship

Lasting anywhere between one and five years, higher apprenticeships (level 4 and above) are currently available across more than 1,500 roles, in subjects ranging from accounting and banking, to engineering and manufacturing, the media and marketing.

As with other apprenticeships, you'll get the chance to gain practical experience while working towards a qualification that could further your career. Part of your apprenticeship will be spent studying at a college, university or training centre. This could be for one day a week, a block of several weeks or for the entire first year.

To get onto a higher apprenticeship, which is the equivalent of a foundation degree, you'll usually need to have a minimum of five GCSEs at grades A-C and level 3 qualifications such as A-levels, an advanced level diploma, an NVQ level 3 or an advanced apprenticeship.

The exact entry requirements will depend on the sector and your prior skills, and even after achieving A-levels, you may still have to begin at an intermediate or advanced level (2 or 3 respectively). This is certainly the case for industries such as engineering where relevant occupational skills are required from the outset.

You'll receive a salary, but this can vary significantly depending on the company and sector you're working in. You're entitled to receive at least the national minimum wage for apprentices. For those aged under 19, and those aged 19 and above during the first year of the apprenticeship, this is currently set at £3.50 per hour - although wages can be as much as £300 per week.

In addition to working towards professional accreditation and membership, you may be awarded a qualification equivalent to an NVQ level 4 or a foundation degree.

Following a similar structure to higher apprenticeships are school and college leaver programmes. One of the main differences is that they don't always end in a formal qualification.

Find out more about apprenticeships or if you're ready to search for a suitable higher apprenticeship, visit GOV.UK.

Entry-level job

These jobs don't require applicants to hold a relevant professional qualification and are therefore available to school or college leavers. Viewed as the entry-point into a specific vocation, some entry-level jobs don't even require applicants to have work experience in the field - as skills will often be developed through on-the-job training.

Many openings are on a full-time, permanent basis; but some may instead be on a temporary contract or restricted to part-time hours.

Examples of entry-level jobs can be found in areas including bookkeeping (accountancy), marketing and teaching (as assistants), and web development or business analysis (information technology).

There are three main types of entry-level job available to school or college leavers:

  • Traineeships - these are best described as a short course (lasting up to six months) with work experience that prepares you for either an apprenticeship or work. While it's unpaid, you may be reimbursed for food and travel expenses.
  • Apprenticeships - they combine paid work with longer-term study that results in a formal qualification. If this is of interest, explore apprenticeships in greater detail. To find out what's available, search for apprenticeships.
  • Employer-designed school leaver programmes - incorporating paid work with training, these schemes will introduce you to the world of work, and result in a professional qualification.

Despite this training focus, the financial incentives for progression can often be minor. Pay increases are typically small in relative terms, meaning that several promotions may be required before average earnings levels are reached.

Gap year

Taking a gap year could buy you some thinking time before making your next move into work or study. Traditionally, the phrase 'gap year' meant a period of time taken out by students after leaving college and before starting university. However, gap years can now happen at any stage, be taken by anyone, and for varying amounts of time.

Whether you choose to do monkey conservation in Vietnam, farm work in Australia or simply wish to travel round America on a shoestring budget, your trip will need thorough planning and clear goals to ensure that you make the most of the experience.

Taking a gap year could help you to develop the skills that employers want, raise your cultural awareness, increase your confidence and independence, improve your language skills and give you valuable work experience.

University can be expensive and a sponsored degree can help to meet these costs. They involve a company supporting you while you study - typically for three years, the same as a Bachelors degree - either with annual bursaries or a full salary. Many also cover your tuition fees, meaning that you leave university with no student debt.

Many of these courses are now referred to as higher or degree apprenticeships, with sponsored degrees mainly available in practical subjects such as science and engineering, although many major firms also offer them in accountancy and finance, and IT.

Aside from the funding and employer support, another benefit is that in many cases you'll be guaranteed a job when you graduate. It's also a great opportunity to learn from those in the know, as you're likely to have a mentor who will provide you with helpful advice and guidance.

It's important to be aware that a sponsored degree is a contract between you and the employer and as such they will expect something in return. For instance, this could mean working when your peers are on holiday from university.

If you're interested, you'll need to research the companies in your sector that offer sponsored degrees. It's likely that they will dictate the university and subject - as many companies will have partner institutions.

For example, Morrisons' sponsored degree programmes in manufacturing, corporate, logistics, retail and supply chain are in partnership with the University of Bradford and Sheffield Hallam University.

Foundation degree or HND

Focused on building the skills that employers are looking for, foundation degrees provide a strong platform for those wishing to enter the workplace.

The equivalent of two-thirds of a full honours degree, they're normally offered by universities and further education colleges working together in partnership. If courses are studied full time, they usually last for two years. When taken part time, they can take three or four years to complete.

To discover where the qualification can lead, take a look at options with your foundation degree.

The Higher National Diploma (HND) is a vocational qualification usually studied full time for two years (or three years part time), which prepares you for a career in specific industries, such as engineering, business, hospitality, computer science, design or health and social care.

However, if you want to apply for a graduate scheme or graduate-level job you'll usually need a full degree and so most HND graduates choose to 'top up' to this higher award.

Find out what your options are after graduation, by considering your HND, what next?


If you've got a great idea, a sharp business mind and a determination to succeed then going it alone might be the route for you.

Flexible hours, independence and the potential for a higher salary are just some of the benefits of being self-employed.

However, having the pressure of success or failure resting on your shoulders can be very stressful. Bear in mind that you won't receive holiday or sick pay, your income can be irregular and you could work much longer days than the typical employee.

Take a look at self-employment to discover whether it would suit you.