Deciding what to do when you leave school is tough. Do you go to university and get a degree or gain an apprenticeship and earn while you learn? Weigh up your options and discover which is the best route for you

The degree versus apprenticeship debate is long-running and choosing your next move requires careful consideration. Higher education remains a popular option for most but attitudes towards apprenticeships have also evolved and they are now recognised as an equal alternative to university. This is reflected in the number of people starting this route to employment. In 2019/20 there were 271,890 apprenticeship starts - 66,730 of these were higher apprenticeships (degree Level 6 and 7).

The main benefits of each option can be summarised as follows:

  • Going to university - you'll be able to pick from thousands of courses, a degree will leave your career more open-ended in terms of future opportunities, you'll gain your independence by living away from home and you'll acquire a whole range of soft skills, transferrable to any job role.
  • Doing an apprenticeship - you'll immediately enter the world of work and gain valuable on-the-job experience while earning money as you study. You won't pay tuition fees and you'll make industry contacts from day one.

Here we weigh up the benefits of each option in more detail to help make a tricky decision that little bit easier. If you're still unsure, bear in mind that you're choosing between the two experiences, not whether to gain a degree or not. It's still possible to gain a university qualification with a degree apprenticeship.

What subjects are on offer?

If you choose to study at university you'll be able to choose from a range of programmes. This variety can be useful if you're unsure what you want to do after graduation, as you can opt for a broader subject and keep your options open.

You might also be surprised at the scope of apprenticeships on offer. They are no longer dominated by the manual trades such as construction and the engineering sector, and instead span a range of industries including:

What will I learn?

Course and apprenticeship content depends on the subject you choose to study or train in. Each degree programme and apprenticeship will be different so do some research to discover exactly what each involves. When comparing the content of university courses and apprenticeships make sure the content and resulting qualifications meet your career needs.

Although vocational degrees are on the rise, university study is primarily focused on education and research. Following a theory-based approach you'll learn about your subject through lectures, seminars and workshops, and graduate with a Bachelors degree. You'll then head out into the world of work to test your knowledge and put into practice what you've learned.

Apprenticeships appeal to those looking for alternatives to university as they take a more practical approach to learning. You'll focus on training for a specific career and learn your trade by actually doing the job. You'll gain hands-on experience and have the opportunity to apply your skills immediately. On completion you may hold an NVQ, HNC or HND, while higher apprenticeships can lead to a foundation degree and degree apprenticeships can result in a full honours degree.

What job opportunities are available?

A university education allows you to target a broader range of careers than you can through an apprenticeship, but both will stand you in good stead when it comes getting a job.

Apprenticeships are restrictive in the sense that the training and skills that you gain are specific to a particular industry or role. An apprenticeship will also likely tie you to the employer for a specified number of years. However, if you're confident in your career choice you'll be well equipped to take advantage of apprenticeship opportunities.

Bear in mind that, in sectors such as healthcare, business and science, you'll need a degree to enter certain professions. These professions include:

Other sectors benefit from the practical, on-the-job training that higher and degree apprenticeships provide, such as roles in engineering and manufacturing, property and construction and the media.

At the end of your apprenticeship whether you progress to a full time job will depend on the organisation as Louise Mitchell, senior talent acquisition lead at Jisc points out. 'Our apprentices have several options available to them, and while we can’t guarantee a job at the end of the programme, we do our very best to retain as many as we can. They can either apply for another role within Jisc, stay in the team they did their training and move into a permanent role, or decide to continue an apprenticeship at a higher level. '

Browse our job profiles to discover whether you'll need to pursue university or an apprenticeship for your chosen career.

How much will it cost?

Apprenticeships undoubtedly win this round. If you're under 25 the government and your employer fund your training so you don't have to pay a penny.

On the other hand studying for a degree will cost you £9,250 per year in tuition fees, plus additional living expenses. You'll undoubtedly leave university with student debt, however you won't start repayments until you earn a minimum of £26,576 a year.

What will I earn?

If you opt for university you'll have to wait until after graduation to start earning a full-time wage. As an apprentice you'll earn while you learn and receive the national minimum wage for apprentices. If you're aged between 16 and 18 the rate currently stands at £4.15. This rate also applies to those aged 19 or over who are currently in their first year of training.

The earning potential of university graduates and apprentices has previously been examined by The Sutton Trust, which found that apprentices can expect to earn thousands more in their lifetime than undergraduates from non-Russell Group universities.

In fact, those who opt to study for a level 5 higher apprenticeship will earn an estimated £1.5million during the course of their career, almost £52,000 more than graduates from non-elite universities. However, students from top Russell Group universities come out on top with estimated lifetime earnings of £1.6million.

What do employers think?

Both methods of study are highly regarded by employers. University is respected for the depth of knowledge and transferrable skills it provides, while apprenticeships are valued for their practical nature and real-life work experience opportunities.

More organisations than ever before are offering apprenticeship schemes as employers come to view this method of training as a viable alternative to a university degree. However, educated graduates are in high demand and look set to remain so for the foreseeable future.

'Apprentices are great for bringing a fresh perspective to the organisation. This is particularly important for Jisc as they provider the student perspective for us and give us a unique insight we might not normally have,' explains Louise.

If you have ambitions to work for a particular company it might be helpful to find out what they look for in a candidate, which do they value most, qualifications or experience? This could help when making your decision.

It's a tough choice to make and one option isn't necessarily better than the other. Take a look at your current situation - consider what qualifications you already hold, what you'd like to study, your finances and what you'd like to do in the future. Do some research and choose the best option for you.

You could work towards an apprenticeship and then go to university or similarly get a degree and then do an apprenticeship. However, if you pick the latter course of action, the same apprenticeship funding might not be available.

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