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In your final year of college and wavering between gaining an apprenticeship and going to university? The number of apprenticeships starts in England in 2021/2022 rose by 26% to 204,000 compared to 161,000 for the same period reported in the previous year.  However, compared to the same period in 2019/2020, starts are down by 6.3%. Taking on an apprenticeship can be a fulfilling alternative to going to university. But what’s the best course of action for you? Which would you prefer and feel comfortable spending the next three to six years of your life accomplishing?

A note to start with - in the blog we will be focusing on level 6 and 7 apprenticeships - that is, apprenticeships equivalent to a Bachelor’s and Master’s degree and more in line with what you will probably go to university to achieve. 

How much will it cost me?


Luckily for you, apprenticeships are funded by your employer and the government if you are under 25 so you don’t have to pay anything towards your training costs! On top of this, you’ll gain an apprenticeship wage of £4.81 an hour, or even more, depending on how generous your employer is. 


A degree in the UK (for English students) costs £9,250 a year in tuition fees as well as your living expenses, in which you can take out a loan of up to £12,010 per year to cover. This means that by the end of a three year degree you can easily have accumulated £60,000 worth of debt plus interest. However, at the same time, you won’t need to start repaying these debts until you earn over £27, 295 (2020)  per year and 30 years after you graduate your student loan will be written off entirely.

What will the lifestyle be like?


Apprentices are treated like full-time employees and depending on your situation this means that you could be responsible for your travel, accommodation and living expenses. There may be others undertaking the same apprenticeship as you within the company, and you may be able to meet others on your course, whilst you’ll also be part of the working community of people from all walks of life. Depending on the size of the company, there may be opportunities to socialise and join clubs and initiates, or you may have to do this independently outside the working environment. 


University life (COVID-depending) revolves student halls, joining sports clubs and societies and meeting lots of people with the same (and different) interests to you. It’s great if you have a passion specifically for education, and want a halfway house of independent living before you transition into the working world. 

What will the learning experience be like?


Apprentices primarily learn on the job, with one or two days per week or month spent in training. For some, this training will take place in a college or university, and for others it happens within the workplace itself. They might also have to revise, and sit exams and write essays etc in their own time to gain their qualifications as they go in the same way that university students will be assessed. 


University is more academically focused, with students learning through seminars, lectures, labs and independent research. They’ll have to sit exams, give presentations, write essays, a dissertation and literature reviews, etc to gain the appropriate degree.

Some degrees do require an element of hands-on experience, for example those with ‘sandwich years’ which allow you to work for a year in your field. However, many don’t so you’ll need to supplement your learning with experience of the working world, preferably in the industry you’d like to enter. 

What can I study?


There are a wide range of qualifications available as apprenticeships, however, 83% of all starts in 2018/19 were in four subject areas: Business, Administration and Law; Health, Public Service and Care; Engineering and Manufacturing Technologies; and Retail and Commercial Enterprise. 

Some sought after industries that offer apprenticeships include Accountancy, IT, Media, Publishing and Journalism. 

Apprenticeships are restrictive in the sense that the training and skills that you gain are specific to a particular industry or role. However, it’s a great career move if you're confident in your career choice.


At university there are thousands of courses to study, from vocational qualifications such as Nursing and Product Design to broader subjects such as History of Art and Economics. 

University is especially great if you have a subject you’d like to pursue and are not yet sure what career you’d like to go into. Lots of companies, and industries, such as management consultancy and the civil service have no preference when it comes to degree subjects, whilst some professions, such as a Medical Doctor can only be entered via a university degree. 

Will I be employable when I finish?

As you’ll acquire a degree whichever route you choose to study, you’ll be highly regarded by employers. University is respected for the depth of knowledge and transferrable skills it provides, while apprenticeships are valued for their practical nature and real-life work experience opportunities.

If you have a career in mind, or more specifically an ideal company you’d like to work for, find out the route that they like their new recruits to take. Scout out a few employees in the company via LinkedIn and assess their journeys into that company. Knowing the path already trodden can help you make your university vs apprenticeship decision easier. 

The Sutton Trust found that apprentices studying for a level 5 qualification, slightly below the equivalent of a Bachelor’s degree, will earn £1.5 million during the course of their career, almost £52,000 more than graduates from non-elite universities who can expect to earn £1.4 million. However, students from top Russell Group universities came out on top with estimated lifetime earnings of £1.6million.

The choice is yours

Neither option is better than the other, so think about what is right for you. Do you have a career or industry you really want to go into? Is there a subject you want to pursue further? Do you want to hang on to student life for that little bit longer? Do you want to get down to business and experience the working world?

Create a spreadsheet, write down your pros and cons, visit universities and do your research on potential apprenticeships. With a bit more knowledge you’ll be able to narrow down your options and find the perfect solution for you. 

Top photo by Jessica Da Rosa via free Unsplash License.

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