Independent careers adviser Liz Ponsford outlines some alternatives to degrees so you feel confident to advise your students.
At a time when students are increasingly concerned about the costs of going to university and the competitiveness of the graduate jobs market, it's worth researching alternative ways to gain a Higher Education qualification.
The great thing is that there are an increasing number of opportunities to get a fully funded degree, work experience and a salary all at the same time. These routes will be especially attractive to students who have a clear career direction in mind and are keen to apply the knowledge and skills in a professional setting as they acquire them.
Unsurprisingly, sixth form students can feel overloaded with information and choices. Grappling with the demands of A levels is tough, especially as students are all the time conscious of the need to fill their university applications with distinctive extracurricular activities. Often this means that they just opt for the most familiar route. The challenge is to support them to explore the alternatives – then they can make an informed choice.
We’ve outlined some of the main options below to help you understand what’s on offer.
In a sponsored degree, an employer will offer financial support for a school leaver to do a degree in a relevant subject. Some employers pay a salary and cover tuition fees, while others offer a bursary and paid work placements. The young person could study for a sponsored degree via distance learning or on campus. The way the student spends their time depends on the programme. Sometimes they’ll be studying for one or more days a week and working for the rest; or they may attend university as a full-time student and work for the employer during the holidays.
The extent to which employers give school leavers flexibility about their degree choice varies quite a lot, but for students looking at engineering, retail, management or accountancy, prestigious firms like Airbus, Morrisons, Ernst and Young, and Barclays Bank are just a few of the companies that might offer sponsorship opportunities. It’s often possible to apply for paid work and financial support regardless of the course of study.
A degree apprenticeship is a relatively new education route, launched last September by the Government. Like the sponsored degree, it brings together the merits of university study apprenticeships, relieving students of the cost of tuition. An apprentice splits their time between university study and the workplace and are employed throughout – gaining a full bachelor’s or master’s degree from university while earning a wage and getting on-the-job experience in their chosen profession. Crucially though, these new courses have been specially taiored by businesses in partnership with universities and colleges and unlike sponsored apprenticeships, course fees are paid for with government funding as well as by the employer.
Some examples of larger employers who offer Degree Apprenticeships include Nestle, John Lewis, Unilever, BT, BMW, and Balfour Beatty. Degrees in food manufacturing, chemistry, ICT, automotive engineering, and civil engineering are all on offer with the scheme.
It is important to be aware that entry into the degree apprenticeships with these employers is competitive.They require top grades at GCSE and A level. A place on the Jaguar apprenticeship scheme, for example, requires maths A level at A-C, along with a science or engineering subject.
The best paying companies with the most sought-after apprenticeship positions are as competitive to enter as the some of the most prestigious universities. Pharmaceutical, accounting, and retail firms are where competition is fiercest. Deloitte accepts just 5% of its apprentice applicants, and GlaxoSmithKline received 30 applicants for every apprentice it hired this year. By contrast, Marks and Spencer's school leaver programme is less stringent – asking that new recruits gain two A levels of any grade – far below the requirements for any of Britain’s red-brick universities, however it still accepts just 1% of applicants for its 30 school leaver positions.
Students who are unsuccessful at gaining a degree apprenticeship or those who would prefer a less competitive entry route to a work based learning programme could explore higher apprenticeships. In contrast to the degree apprenticeship, the employed apprentice works towards a Level 4 qualification, (equivalent to the Foundation Degree or Higher National Diploma). The higher apprenticeships are offered by the larger employers including The Civil Service, BT Group, Deloitte, John Lewis, the NHS, and GSK with Level 4 qualifications being offered in fields like Business, Finance, Retail as well as Engineering, IT, Healthcare, and Laboratory science.
Higher apprenticeships are also offered by small to medium size companies and may have the advantage of being available within the student's home area.
Having successfully completed the higher apprenticeship, often there is the opportunity to progress onto a full degree, gain professional recognition or other promotion opportunities. For example, once a young person has successfully completed a higher apprenticeship with the civil service they are eligible to apply without a degree for the prestigious Fast Stream graduate development programme.
Part time degree study
If a suitable degree or higher apprenticeship or sponsored degree programme is not available to a student or if they have been unsuccessful in their application, they may wish to consider taking a part time degree course alongside a part time job. Although this route to a higher education qualification takes longer to complete, the part time route allows the student flexibility to choose the best course and work combination for them. Also unlike the two previous routes, the student will need to apply for student finance for tuition fees. Distance learning with the Open University is another way to get a degree alongside paid or voluntary work which should not be forgotten.
Understandably, many students want the full student life experience that comes with the traditional full time degree. Perhaps alternative routes don’t offer the same range of new learning experiences, and opportunities – but for many students they open up really exciting possibilities. What is key is that students are aware of all the options because in order to get find the best route for them, students need to know what’s on offer.
Practical steps to take to support students to explore these options:
- Increase students’ awareness of opportunities by regularly posting on an information board, sixth form website, or Facebook to advertise details of specific degree apprenticeships.
- Encourage students to look up vacancies on company websites as well as Gov.UK and Not Going To Uni.
- Invite alumni, local employers and representatives from universities into school to talk to students about their experiences of higher apprenticeships and other routes available. he Careers and Enterprise Company can help develop partnerships between schools and employers. More about that from us in future!
- Make sure students have a full understanding of the terminology. They should be aware of different levels within the Regulated qualifications framework and the progression routes within this. Ideally this can be integrated into the careers education programme from Key Stage 3. The Careers, Employability and Enterprise Education Framework, designed by the Career Development Institute, presents learning outcome statements for students across seventeen important areas of careers, employability and enterprise learning. These statements show progression from Key Stage 2 through to post-16 education and training. It also offers examples of suggested activities that will help students to achieve the learning outcomes.
- Reassure students that the process of making applications is a valuable career learning experience even if they decide not to follow through on them.
If you’re looking for a good place to start exploring, you can have a look at the Degree Apprenticeship in Confectionery with Nestlé which is being advertised right now to school leavers. The course covers food science and nutrition; food factory processing; business improvement and manufacturing management. What's more, students gain a BSc (Hons) Degree in Food Manufacture which includes topics like chocolate moulding, and toffee and caramel manufacture. Nestlé pays 100% of degree fees and they offer an attractive salary. What better opportunity for the aspiring chocolatier!