University and apprenticeships: what's the difference?
How to decide between the two
A UK university degree usually takes three or four years of academic study and can cost up to £9,250 per year. Apprentices earn a weekly wage as they gain skills and knowledge on the job, working towards a qualification. This guide will help you decide which one is right for you.
Qualifications and experience
Universities typically offer four qualification levels: foundation degree, bachelor’s degree, master’s degree and post-doctoral degree (PhD).
Some degrees include ‘sandwich years’, allowing you to work for a year in your field. The majority don’t, however, and you’ll need to use your own initiative, together with help from your university’s careers service, to gain relevant experience.
Apprenticeships can offer different levels of qualifications, ranging from Level 2 (equivalent to GCSEs, Scottish National 5s etc.) all the way up to Level 6 (equivalent to a master’s degree). However, not all apprenticeship frameworks/ standards will be able to offer you the higher qualifications.
The majority of your time will be spent in the workplace, where you’ll develop a skill or trade through hands-on learning.
Do you need a degree?
Some careers, such as doctor or barrister, require a degree in a specific field. Some employers, such as the Civil Service Fast Stream, don’t care what degree you have, as long as you have one. This is where a traditional university degree might allow you to keep your options open: a subject like English, for example, may not have a direct vocational focus, but will teach soft skills such as research, communication, and analysis that many employers value.
On the other hand, many employers value experience and technical skills as much as, if not more than, qualifications. This is where apprenticeships really excel; they allow you to gain hands-on experience in the workplace. In addition, it is possible to gain a degree through a degree apprenticeship. For more information on this, take a look at our guide Degree Apprenticeships.
- Scottish universities are free for home students, but those in Northern Ireland can charge up to £4,030 a year, Wales up to £9,000 and England up to £9,250. Fees for international students are even higher. In addition, you may need to take out a maintenance loan to pay for your expenses whilst studying.
- The Graduate Labour Market Statistics show that, in 2017, graduates and postgraduates in England earned on average £10,000 per year more than non-graduates.
- There are absolutely no tuition fees - the training you’ll receive is paid for by the government.
- You’ll also earn a minimum hourly wage of £4.15/hour (and many employers choose to offer more than this). For more details, take a look at our guide UK Apprenticeships: How much will I earn?
Apprenticeships allow students to earn while they learn, meaning they won’t have a hefty student loan when they finish their qualification. However, some people view university as an investment for their future career. With both options, it’s important to consider the upfront costs and the earnings you could make in the future with that qualification. When searching for careers in the Careers library, you’ll find the average salary and prospects for each pathway, as well as the necessary skills and qualifications required.
Remember that you won’t need to pay your university tuition fees upfront; you can apply for a government loan which you pay back at a rate that’s based on your earnings. Alternatively, there are plenty of universities around the world, particularly in Europe, that don’t have tuition fees. Using Unifrog’s European Universities tool, you can even filter your results by ‘no tuition fees’.
- At university you’ll get to experience living in student halls, joining societies and sport clubs, and of course - freshers’ week. You’ll have the opportunity to meet other students from all over the world.
- If you really enjoy learning and delving deep into a subject, a university will give you the opportunity to do just that, along with experts in their field and other students who are passionate about your chosen subject.
- The majority of your time will be spent in the workplace, with one or two days per week or month spent in training. For some apprenticeships, this training takes place in a college or university; for others, it happens within the workplace itself.
- Apprentices are treated similarly to employees. You’ll earn a salary, meaning that you could also be paying for your own accommodation and living expenses.
Working as an apprentice, you’ll have all the responsibility of a paid employee. If you like the independence of earning your own money, and you’re keen to get started in the workplace as soon as possible, this could be perfect for you. Others may prefer the idea of university as a transition between school and working life, where they can get involved in societies and meet new people.
Still not sure?
If you’re still not sure about which option is the right fit for you, that’s perfectly okay. In fact, it’s super common. Here are some tips to help you decide:
- Explore your options. Use Unifrog’s Apprenticeships or UK Universities tools to make shortlists of programmes that interest you. The shortlists will give you all the details you need in terms of fees, qualifications and lifestyle for each option to allow you to make a comparison.
- Speak to people who have been there and done it. You can do this by attending open days or doing some work experience.
- Keep your options open. If you’re still not sure, you can use Unifrog’s Apply tool to accumulate everything you need for both options and even apply to both - you’ll have a year left to decide.
And try not to worry too much about making the ‘wrong’ decision - there’s nothing stopping you from completing a degree after your apprenticeship, and visa versa!
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