Traditional university degree or debt-free apprenticeship?
As more apprenticeships become available, many are finding themselves tempted away from uni by the triple-stack promise of no fees, recognised qualifications and workplace experience. But which is the best option for you? Read on to find out…
Qualifications and experience
Ultimately, this is the main reason to pursue either option – it’s the qualification and experience that’ll get you where you want to go.
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, or internships over the summer holidays. 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 will be able to offer you the higher qualifications.
This is where apprenticeships really excel – the majority of your time will be spent in the workplace, where you’ll develop a skill or trade through hands-on learning.
Ultimately, the qualification and experience you need will depend on the career you want. Some careers, such as Law and Medicine, require a degree. Others, such as those in finance, might prefer candidates with a degree to those without one. A university degree might allow you to keep your options open: subjects such as English lend themselves well to a range of careers, and some employers don’t care what degree you have, as long as you have one.
On the other hand, it is possible to gain a degree with a degree apprenticeship, and there are plenty of good careers (e.g. computer programming or engineering) that don’t require you to have a bachelor’s degree. Many employers claim to value experience over qualifications, which is where apprenticeships excel, and this is even more applicable when it comes to careers that require a technical skill.
- University tuition in the UK can come with a high price tag. 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 non-home students are even higher. In addition, you may need to take out a maintenance loan to pay for your expenses whilst studying.
- You won’t need to pay your tuition fees upfront – they’ll be paid with a government loan. Your interest rates will be based on the RPI rate of inflation (the rate at which prices rise). While studying, until the April following graduation, you'll be charged RPI + 3%. After that, it depends on your annual earnings:
- Earn under £25,000: Interest rate = RPI
- Earn over £45,000: Interest rate = RPI + 3%
- Earn from £25,000 to £45,000: It rises gradually from RPI to RPI + 3%. For example, if you earn a salary of £35,000 your rate will be RPI + 1.5%
- Despite the high fees, a degree can be a good financial investment. According to recent statistics, graduates earn on average £10,000/year more than non-graduates.
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’.
- One of the biggest selling points with apprenticeships is that 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 £3.70/hour (and many employers choose to offer more than this). For more details, check out our article ‘What can I earn?’
With both options, there are loads of variables when it comes to your potential earnings. A Level 2 apprenticeship in Hairdressing, for example, isn’t likely to give you the same earning potential as a degree apprenticeship in Engineering. Likewise, a third-class honour’s degree in Music from a low-tier university probably won’t open as many doors for you as a first in Law from Oxbridge. If earning potential is a key factor in your decision, you need to research your options thoroughly.
- Unifrog’s Careers Library gives salary ranges for each career
- Unifrog’s Subjects Library gives an average graduate salary for each degree subject
- Ratemyapprenticeship gives average apprenticeship salaries across a range of sectors and areas
- This article goes into some detail on which degree subjects that have the highest earning potential (but doesn’t take into account the university that you graduate from)
- The student lifestyle is supposedly one of the best things about going to uni. You’ll be able to enjoy fresher’s week and endless student nights out, student halls, societies and clubs, and the possibility to meet other young people from around the world.
- The majority of your time will be spent in the workplace, with only one or two days per week or month spent in training. For some apprenticeships, this training will take place in a college or university; for others, it’ll take place within the workplace itself.
- Apprentices are treated similarly to employees and also earn a salary, meaning they have the potential to pay for their own accommodation and living expenses. This might feel like quite a lot of independence and will require quite a mature and responsible attitude.
Still not sure?
If you’re still not sure about which option is the right fit for you, that’s perfectly OK, and is in fact super common. The key thing is to do your research – narrow down your options to a specific subject, university or apprenticeship framework and do some digging online to find out the potential prospects (in terms of qualification, fees, earning potential and lifestyle) for each option. Speak to people who have been there and done it, attend open days or do some work shadowing. If you’re still not sure, there’s nothing wrong with keeping your options open – 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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