A decision that many young people have to make is whether they should go to university or do an apprenticeship.
Let’s look at what each option involves.
- Going to university can mean studying for three or four years on a full-time basis for a bachelor’s degree. However, other higher education qualifications – such as HNDs and foundation degrees – are available; these can usually be ‘topped up’ to a bachelor’s degree with further study.
- An apprenticeship allows you to train for a specific career through structured training in the workplace combined with off-the-job learning at a college, university or training centre. Apprenticeships are available from level 2 (equivalent to GCSEs at grades 9-4/A*-C or National 5) to level 7 (master’s degree level). Even if you have A levels, Highers or equivalent, you may need to start training at a lower level in order to learn the basics before you can progress. Higher and degree apprenticeships offer training at level 4+ and can lead to higher education qualifications. Apprenticeships last from one to six years.
To help you decide which option is right for you, here are six questions to ask yourself.
1. Do I have a career in mind?
If you know what you want to do, find out what routes are available to achieve your ambition. You may have a choice between starting through a full-time university course or an apprenticeship, but for certain careers, such as becoming a vet, training has to be through full-time university study.
Traditionally apprenticeships focused on learning ‘the trades’, but these days they are available in practically every employment sector. In some cases, they provide an alternative route to professions such as nursing, surveying or accountancy.
If you’re not sure what you’d like to do, many careers are open to graduates of any discipline. You could choose a university course from a huge range of subjects and then decide on a career in a couple of years’ time when you may be clearer about your ambitions.
2. What about money matters?
Everyone has heard about student debt. Going to university normally involves taking out loans to pay for your tuition fees and to help with your living costs. Bear in mind though, if you do take out student loans, these don’t have to be repaid until you are employed and earning a certain level of income.
If you do an apprenticeship, not only are there usually no tuition fees, you are employed in a real job and earn an income. There are minimum wage rates, but many employers pay much more than these.
3. How do I like to learn?
Going to university usually involves attending lectures, seminars and tutorials, and perhaps doing lab and field work, or workshop/studio-based sessions. Many courses are theoretical, but others are vocational. Some courses – especially those leading to professional registration for a career – include work placements. Assessment methods often include essays, written exams and a research project.
Apprenticeships offer a practical, ‘hands-on’ approach to learning. Although you do some off-the-job training, you’ll learn a lot by doing an actual job. You’ll be able to apply what you learn on-the-job to your off-the-job training and vice versa. A range of assessment methods are used; these can include observations of your competence in the workplace and other practical assessments.
4. Do I have what it takes?
Whilst the academic requirements for apprenticeships might not always be as high as for certain university courses, employers will want to make sure that you will cope with the level and demands of the programme. Carefully investigate the entry requirements for the options you are considering.
University courses demand high academic ability. To succeed on an apprenticeship, you must be able to juggle both work and study. Neither option is easy!
5. What about the lifestyle?
If you go to university away from home, you’ll learn to be independent. You are likely to meet a wide circle of people and many students enjoy a rich social life.
As an apprentice, you’ll be treated like any other employee. It may take a bit of time to adjust to working hours and not having long holidays. On the other hand, you’ll be employed alongside a range of people of different ages and have a head start in the world of work.
6. Which option do employers prefer?
Both university and apprenticeship routes are well respected by employers.
Studying at degree level shows that you have developed a range of transferable skills and, for this reason, employers often run graduate training programmes.
Apprenticeships are designed with sector organisations and employers so provide you with the training you’ll need for your chosen career. At the end of their programme, many apprentices stay in employment – often with the same employer.
If getting work experience and making industry contacts is important to you, an apprenticeship might seem the obvious option. However, vocational university courses often have close links with employers and include placements; some higher education programmes are offered as sandwich courses so incorporate a year’s experience in industry.
If you have a particular employer in mind, find out about their attitude to different entry routes.
Make sure you research the content of any courses or apprenticeship programmes carefully so that you are fully aware of what is involved.
The UCAS site has extensive information on going to university and a course-search facility. Depending on where you live, you can find information on apprenticeships and search for opportunities through:
- The Government’s Apprenticeships site in England
- Careers Wales
- Apprenticeships.Scot from Skills Development Scotland
- The Apprenticeships site for Northern Ireland.
Whatever you decide to do, make sure it’s the best option for you.
Debbie Steel, Updated May 2023
With a background working with apprentices and teaching in further education, Debbie was employed as an in-house careers author before establishing herself as a freelancer. As well as co-authoring numerous careers books, Debbie has produced resources and web content for a range of high-profile clients. She is an enthusiastic proponent of impartial and reliable careers information.