Deciding what to do when you leave school or college is tough. Do you go to university and get a degree or choose an apprenticeship and earn while you learn? Explore which route would be best for you

University vs apprenticeship

  • Over 2.86 million students go to university in the UK (2022/23).
  • Degree apprenticeships are becoming popular - over 40,000 starts in England (2023/23).
  • Gain a recognised academic qualification or engage in work-based learning.
  • Save money/work/get a loan while at university or earn a wage as an apprentice.

Higher education (HE) remains the most popular option - with over 2.86 million students attending UK universities in 2022 (HESA 2021/22) - but attitudes towards apprenticeships have evolved and they're now recognised as a viable alternative to university.

This is reflected in the number of people deciding on this route to employment. According to government apprenticeship and trainee figures (October 2023) 41,340 apprentices started degree apprenticeships to Bachelors (Level 6) and Masters (Level 7) standards in England during 2022/23, an increase of over 9% on the previous year.

Comparing the main benefits

  • 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 range of soft skills, transferable 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 advantages 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. You'll still be able to achieve a university qualification with a degree apprenticeship.

There are also a raft of college courses available if you decided on an apprenticeship at FE (further education) level.

What subjects are on offer?

If you choose to study at university, you'll be able to pick from a range of programmes. This 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 manual trades such as construction and engineering - instead, they 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 and apprenticeship will be different, so do some research to discover what each involves. When comparing 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 and seminars as well as 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 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 to getting a job.

Apprenticeships are restrictive in the sense that the training and skills 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 any opportunities to progress.

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

Other sectors benefit from the practical, on-the-job training that higher and degree apprenticeships provide, such as roles in:

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 will 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 your repayments until you earn a minimum of £27,288 a year.

Read more about student loans and finance.

What will I earn?

If you opt for university, you'll have to wait until after graduation to start earning a full-time wage. According to the High Fliers report on The Graduate Market in 2023, the average graduate starting salary with someone the UK's leading employers is £33,500 in 2023, an increase of £1,500 on the previous year.

As an apprentice you'll earn while you learn and receive at least the National Minimum Wage (NMW) for apprentices. If you're aged between 16 and 18 the rate is £5.28 (from April 2023). This rate also applies to those aged 19 or over who are currently in their first year of training. Apprentices can expect to earn around £15,000 to £30,000 per year, depending on the level you're training at and the job sector you're working in.

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.

Discover the best paying apprenticeship sectors in 2024.

What do employers think?

Both methods of study are highly regarded by employers. University is respected for the depth of knowledge and transferable 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.

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.

Find out more

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