Comparing university and apprenticeships

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The word choice written on a blackboard with up and down arrows

With many more apprenticeships on offer, university is no longer the default option for young people leaving college or sixth form.

Your child now faces a choice between university and apprenticeships – and it can be a tough one.

In this guide, we help you understand the difference between university and apprenticeships and who each option may be best suited to.

'Is university or an apprenticeship best for your child?'

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Let’s start with university.


University is a good choice for your child if they:

  • Students on a university campus
    University is great for students who want the "uni
    experience" and are passionate about their subject
    Want the “uni experience”: Living semi-independently, making new friends with very different people, joining clubs and societies – these are all things that university can offer.
  • Love their subject: If your child wants to throw themselves into their studies because they love their chosen subject and want to know everything there is to know about it, university is a good choice.
  • Want to go into a profession only accessible via university: There are many career paths which have been opened up to the apprenticeship route (see below) but certain careers are currently only accessible via a university degree (or only widely accessible this way). This includes medicine, veterinary medicine, teaching and architecture.

Pros and cons of university


  1. Students can become experts in the subject they love – through 3+ years of intense, focused study.
  2. University can prepare students for a specific career path – although many higher/degree apprenticeships now offer training for graduate careers.
  3. Graduates earn more – but they can graduate with a higher/degree apprenticeship and earn while they study.
  4. Uni gives students time to gain work experience – during the long summer vacations.
  5. Students get a taste of independence – by living away from home in student halls or rented accommodation.
  6. Students gain high-level transferable skills – such as analysis, critical thinking, communication and problem solving.
  7. It can broaden the mind – by exposing students to new people, ideas and places.


  1. Students may not gain technical skills – many courses are theoretical instead of practical.
  2. Students may not get employability skills – although they can gain these on work experience during the vacations.
  3. Contact time is less than at school – with more of a focus on independent, self-driven study.
  4. Students graduate with a lot of debt – 2018 graduates left university with £36,000 of debt on average.
  5. Students commit 3+ years of their life – so your child should consider whether three more years of education is for them.
  6. Students are not guaranteed a graduate job – many graduates end up in temporary or entry-level jobs not graduate roles.
  7. Lifetime earnings can be higher with an apprenticeship – those with a level 5+ apprenticeship typically earn more than traditional university graduates.


Apprenticeships are a job with pay, training and the chance to gain professionally relevant qualifications. After a revamp over the last few years, they are now a route into high-skilled professions such as civil engineer, solicitor, scientist and nurse.

There are four types of apprenticeship:

Intermediate apprenticeships

  • Apprentice carrying out electronics work
    Apprenticeships are a route into a high-skilled career
    direct from college or sixth form 
    Worth the same as five GCSEs graded 4+.
  • Functional skills in English and maths are needed (students with grade 4+ GCSEs have these).
  • Qualifications they can provide: Level 2 NVQ, National Diploma, National Certificate.

Advanced apprenticeships

  • Worth the same as 2 A-levels.
  • 5 GCSEs grade 4+, including English and maths, are needed.
  • Qualifications they can provide: Level 3 NVQ, National Certificate, BTEC.

Higher apprenticeships

  • Equivalent to a level 4, 5 or 6 qualification.
  • 2 A-levels grade C+ are needed.
  • Qualifications they can provide: Foundation degree, Bachelor’s degree, Master’s degree, Level 4-7 NVQ, Higher National Diploma.
  • Some of the areas apprentices can work in:
    • Construction
    • Engineering
    • Healthcare
    • IT
    • Law
    • Manufacturing
    • Marketing and communications
    • Cyber security
    • Software development
    • Digital marketing

Degree apprenticeships

  • Equivalent to a level 6 or 7 qualification.
  • 2 A-levels grade C+ needed.
  • Qualifications they can provide: Foundation degree, Bachelor’s degree, Master’s degree, Level 4-7 NVQ, Higher National Diploma.
  • Facts and figures:
    • 90% stay in work or training after their programme.
    • 65% remain with the same employer.
    • Half of parents would encourage their child to start one.
    • 71% of parents believe they provide a better chance of getting a job.
    • Typical course length: 3-6 years.
  • Some of the areas apprentices can work in:
    • Finance
    • Construction
    • Engineering
    • Law
    • Management
    • Software development
    • Accountancy
Students in a lecture hall
Higher and degree apprentices often spend time
in university studying towards qualifications

Higher and degree apprenticeships provide similar levels of skills to higher-education qualifications such as a university degree. They can even have the advantage of providing these skills within a practical, applied setting – for example, higher and degree apprentices don’t just develop problem solving, they do so within a specific industry and professional environment. Skills degree apprenticeships are provide and which are desirable to employers include:

  • Problem solving
  • Creative thinking
  • Communication
  • Teamwork
  • Leadership
  • Project management
  • Research and analysis

Apprentices can earn a decent salary as well, with higher apprentices earning up to £500 a week. 90% of higher apprentices stay in work after completing their training programme while 65% remain with the same employer. Degree and higher apprentices can expect to face a demanding work and study schedule, spending over 30 hours in work per week as well as undertaking personal study. This could add up to more hours worked than a university student might expect to undertake.

Comparing apprenticeships and university

So as you can see, you child could benefit from following either route, and could also gain a higher education qualification through an apprenticeship. However, university may suit students who are more academically focused, are unsure what they want to do in future or who wish to follow a career path only available through the university route (such as medicine or teaching).

On the other hand, students who are more practical, have strong idea of their career ambitions and who are keen to earn money while gaining a qualification may be better suited to an apprenticeship.

Some questions your child could ask themselves:

  • Can I see myself studying full-time for a further three years?
  • Is there a particular subject I'd like to learn more about?
  • Do I need to start making money straight away?
  • How competitive is the job industry that I’m considering?
  • Would I prefer to begin a job straight away?
  • Would I be happy working for the same company for at least four years?
  • Is this industry definitely the right career choice for me?

You can read more about the choice between university and apprenticeships in this guide aimed at students.

Images: Lead image and student lecture via Wikimedia Commons, university campus and apprentice via Flickr


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