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Choosing between University or an Apprenticeship: a Guide for School Leavers

With many final year A-level students contemplating their futures, we take a look at one of the more common dilemmas for 18+ school-leavers: the university degree or an apprenticeship.

Choosing an apprenticeship or university

For many students finishing their A-levels, going to university can seem like a rite of passage. Indeed, the latest figures corroborate the popularity of this well-trodden path; in 2022, 37.5% of 18-year-olds were accepted on to a degree program via UCAS. Unsurprisingly then, many students might feel undue pressure to explore degree courses and universities, when there might be something better out there for them. In this blog, we’ll take a closer look at one of the most popular alternatives, the apprenticeship.

But before we get on to that, let’s remind ourselves of what degree courses have to offer.

The University Experience

A typical undergraduate will study for three years and, once complete, will be conferred with a Bachelor's degree, equivalent to a level 6 qualification. Depending on what course is selected, you will likely face a combination of coursework, examinations and an approximately 10,000-word dissertation during that time. It *is* tough. There’s no getting around it. A degree is an academic qualification first - designed to prepare you for the world of postgraduate study - with professional skills and experience playing second fiddle. Naturally, universities are becoming increasingly wise to the needs of the graduate job market, and some even offer bespoke CV workshops and internship programmes. Speaking from my own experience, it was through a summer internship scheme at Warwick University - my alma mater - that I joined the Titanium Tutors family!

Of course, studying at university is much more than just a single-minded pursuit for a degree certificate. You will hear plenty of people - former university students and admissions tutors alike - talking about the fabled “uni experience”. Maybe you’ve had a personal tutor or family member get misty-eyed when recalling the halcyon days of being a student. Or not. Either way, for many, choosing to go to university represents the first time living away from home, with all the ups and downs that come with being an independent young adult. It can be a wonderful opportunity to meet other young people, join student societies and experience another part of the UK - or even the world if you opt to study abroad. I know that I grew massively as a person as a result of having some independence and responsibility while I was at university, even if the latter half of my experience was massively affected by the COVID-19 pandemic.

Student Debt and Graduate Jobs

Now, it would be remiss of me to not briefly talk about one of the key pitfalls of choosing to go to university for the majority of students; finances. At the time of writing, annual fees cost £9,250 a year, all of which are eligible for a tuition loan via Student Finance England (SFE). For new students based in England, this will likely be what is known as a ‘Plan 5’ loan. You may also be eligible for a ‘maintenance loan’ to help cover living costs - rent, bills, food, travel etc. - while you are a full-time student. Both of these are subject to similar repayment terms; the loan principal plus interest is only paid back once you begin to earn over a certain threshold, £25,000 PA, and any outstanding balance is cancelled after 40 years. Given this, it can be easier to think of SFE support as working akin to a ‘graduate tax’, rather than as a typical loan which requires full repayment by a certain date.

Everyone’s individual financial situation is unique, and some fortunate folk won’t even have to contend with SFE. The question many will have is whether the cost of accruing student debt is worthwhile in terms of securing a lucrative graduate job. On this front, there are no guarantees. There are plenty of fantastic graduate schemes out there which offer excellent training, sometimes even professional qualifications, and a wealth of cross-service line experience to kickstart your career. These are coveted opportunities, and competition for graduate jobs can be fierce (LINK). Particularly as companies grapple with rising costs and macroeconomic uncertainty, there are simply less graduate jobs available than there are final year university students. It’s no wonder then that people are reconsidering their options. Enter apprenticeships.

Apprenticeships - The Alternative Offer

Available only to those over-16, apprenticeships come in all shapes and sizes. At their core, they offer full-time employment - including holiday pay! - and the chance to spend at least 20% of your working hours on training and professional development. Below I have included a summary of the two routes relevant to sixth formers:

Higher Apprenticeships:

These include level 4, level 5 (equivalent to a foundation degree), level 6 (equivalent to a bachelor's degree) and level 7 (equivalent to a master’s degree) apprenticeships. An example of a non-degree level 7 qualification would be an ICAEW ACA - Associate of Chartered Accountants - more on this later.

Degree Apprenticeships:

These only include level 6 and 7 apprenticeships, and will lead to either a bachelor’s or master’s degree.

At these higher levels, the appeal is clear. If you are academically inclined and opt for a degree apprenticeship, you have the opportunity to both study and gain invaluable work experience, all while also receiving a salary. Talk about having your cake and eating it. There is also a staggering variety of sectors available, from arts and music all the way to aerospace and manufacturing, and this is only set to broaden as more employers take advantage of government funding; in 2022/2023, the number of apprentices starting a level 6/7 scheme grew by 9.3%.

Of course, an apprenticeship is anything but the ‘easy’ option. There is still lots of competition for places, particularly on schemes with top UK apprentice employers such as the BBC, Barclays, Deloitte, Rolls Royce and the Civil Service. But don’t let that put you off! Each company has their own requirements, some requiring UCAS points (in other words, three A levels or equivalent) and others just requiring GCSEs only. Even then, an apprenticeship will demand that you balance studying alongside working full-time and, as I can attest, this is no mean feat.

Apprenticeships have advantages over a degree.

My Personal Experience as an Apprentice

For the past two years, I was an apprentice on Deloitte’s level 7 audit and assurance apprenticeship scheme. While I ultimately left to take advantage of another exciting career opportunity, the skills and experience I gained allowed me to develop massively as a finance professional. It was not just my technical accountancy-related competences that improved either. Through direct experience with multinational clients - often working to tight deadlines - my confidence and ability to handle stressful situations improved exponentially.

It was a thoroughly rewarding experience, but it was certainly no walk in the park. I can say with full confidence that juggling work and ACA study commitments - as well as trying to relax and socialise too! - was challenging. The ACA is a well-respected qualification and the examinations are no slouch. Indeed, I would put the monstrous open-book ‘Business Planning: Taxation’ examination down as one of the hardest papers I have ever sat, on a comparable level of difficulty to my final year university examinations. This is not intended to scare you, rather, to highlight that apprenticeships can offer a real challenge, the type of growth opportunity I know many school leavers are looking for.

Although my particular scheme was open to university graduates only - acting as an ACA fast-track - I also worked alongside many colleagues who started right out of college on the level 7 ‘Brightstart’ program. This initiative confers the exact same ACA qualification as the graduate scheme, but over a longer time frame. I was always incredibly impressed with how mature and talented the firm’s Brightstart apprentices were, and it is no secret that their careers were rocket-fuelled without the burden of graduate debt and having a two year headstart on the graduates! On more than one occasion I thought that maybe I should have followed that route when I was 18!

Closing Thoughts and Application Tips

Whatever path you or your child chooses, it’s important to make sure you have explored every possibility and considered their strengths and weaknesses. Hopefully this blog has provided some initial inspiration for your next step after A levels, and perhaps even piqued your interest in apprenticeships! If you’re interested in seeing what opportunities are out there, be sure to browse apprenticeship vacancies on the UK government website.

Of course, once you’ve found your dream apprenticeship, you’ll want to put in the best application you can to maximise your chance of getting selected. On this front, Titanium Tutors is well-poised to give you an edge. We have tutors who can help you dust off that CV and prepare a compelling cover letter or, if you’ve already at the latter stages of the application process, help you practise your interview technique so you can impress at the assessment centre. Don’t delay and inquire today on the links above this blog.

That’s a wrap! Let us know in the comments whether you’re considering an apprenticeship, or perhaps send this to a friend who is considering one. Happy hunting!


Blog Post Crafted by Oscar

Oscar has been part of the Titanium Tutors team since 2019, when he was a PPE student at the University of Warwick.

For the past two years he has worked at Deloitte LLP, training to become an ICAEW Chartered Accountant within their Audit & Assurance department in Nottingham.

He is now taking a career break, and when he’s not writing on our blog, you can find him touring and gigging as the saxophonist for the jazz collective Mellowmatic, playing at major UK music festivals such as Glastonbury, Isle of Wight and Boomtown.


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