Apprenticeships vs University: Which Option is Best For You?

I remember my graduation ceremony well. It was wondrous.

Between my father wearing a suit that last fitted him in 1985 and my mother’s broccoli-like green dress, I remember feeling like Leonardo DiCaprio at the Oscars as I proudly walked up onto the stage to get my degree.

The Vice-Chancellor held out his sweaty palm, congratulated me and asked, 'what are your plans for the future?'

I didn't have an answer.

At that moment, I wondered if I had made the right decision. Should I have gone to university? What other options did I have after school?

The chances are you’re reading this because you might also be unsure of which path to take after you leave school or college. That’s okay!

Whether you’ve already applied for university or you’re thinking about an apprenticeship - we’re here to help break it down and compare the two.

Do you even know what an apprenticeship really is? I didn’t...

It seemed as if the path was already laid out beneath my feet: GCSEs, A-levels, and then on to university.

The truth is, I never considered doing an apprenticeship because I knew almost nothing about them.

Apprenticeships were for 'tradespeople' - plumbers, builders and electricians. When I pictured an apprentice, I saw a grubby teen in overalls.

“Wayne,” the boss would say, “pass me that wrench!' and Wayne (the apprentice) would pass his boss the wrench.

That couldn’t be further from the truth. Apprenticeships have changed.

apprenticeships vs university

So just how much have apprenticeships changed?

The government has introduced apprenticeships in collaboration with UK employers.

Schemes are divided into four tiers:

  • Intermediate (level 2)
  • Advanced (level 3)
  • Higher (level 4/5)
  • Degree (level 6/7)

After you have completed your A-Levels, you can apply for higher or degree-level apprenticeships.

An apprenticeship is a real job. Apprentices will work for a company full-time and study towards nationally-recognised qualifications on the side. Each scheme is designed to prepare a young person for a job role or work in a particular sector.

Apprentices are treated like regular employees, receiving a salary for the duration of the scheme. The average salary for an intermediate apprenticeship in 2020 was £16,662, according to reviews on

There are thousands of opportunities spanning across a wide range of sectors ready to offer young people the opportunity to begin a paid, full-time career immediately after leaving school or college.

If you’re under 25, apprentices don’t pay a penny towards their tuition; the government and employers cover these costs.

Want to know more? Read our complete guides to the two types of apprenticeship available after completing your A-levels below.

Do you need a degree for your dream career?

You would be shocked by how many people don't even consider this question...

Now that many high-quality apprenticeships are available, you don’t necessarily have to go to university to pursue your dream career.

Certain careers do require degree-level qualifications. If you want to be a doctor or a dentist, you should go to university.

However, if you are considering a career in finance, accounting or engineering (to name but a few), you should consider the apprenticeship path as an alternative.

If you have a clear idea of what career you are going to pursue after school or college, ask yourself the following questions:

1) Does your preferred career require a university degree?

If not...

2) Are there apprenticeships available in the sector I'm interested in?

If there are, you have two options.

Your task is to decide whether an apprenticeship or a university degree will give you the best preparation for a chance at kick-starting a career.

Did you know it is possible to go to university without paying tuition fees?

'I can go to university without paying £9,000 a year?'

Yes, it is possible to get a tuition-free degree.

In 2015, the government introduced a new tier of apprenticeships - degree apprenticeships.

Degree apprenticeships are very similar to level 2-5 schemes. Candidates are employed by a company where they work full time and get on-the-job training. When a degree apprentice isn’t working, they attend university and work towards a full Bachelor's or Master's degree.

These schemes are classified as Level 6/7 and can last anywhere between 3-5 years.

Apprentices are also paid a bloody brilliant salary, which can rise as high as £30,000.

There are currently level 6/7 schemes available in several different job roles, including Civil Engineering, Project Management, and Architectural Assisting.

Degree apprenticeships are a marvellous opportunity for you to get degree-level qualifications, with all the benefits of a regular, professional apprenticeship.

The button below will send you to our comprehensive guide of degree apprenticeships. It's a thrilling read.

Apprenticeships vs University


  • Undergraduate degrees last between 3-4 years
  • Tend to focus on individual, academic study
  • Over 130 universities in the UK, and thousands of courses on offer
  • Courses vary from the vocational, such a Nursing or Architecture, to more general subjects like English and Geography
  • Opportunity to do a placement, (or year in industry) to get professional experience
  • Campus life: living in halls, student unions, career fairs, and fresher’s week
  • Tuition fees, up to £9,250 p.a. in England 


  • Duration depends on the level of the scheme, lasting anywhere between 1-5 years
  • Specific focus on on-the-job training
  • Apprentices develop practical skills, alongside qualifications
  • Schemes available in thousands of job roles
  • No tuition fees. Costs are covered by the employer (with government funding)
  • Salary paid for the duration of the programme

Atkins hire apprentices and university graduates. They've put together a short video explaining the differences between their apprenticeship and graduate programmes.

University student vs Apprentice

Perhaps the decision between an apprenticeship or university would be easier if you actually met an apprentice and a university student.

Meet Mark. A student at Dartmouth University

Mark studies Business. He is also a member of the Music Society, where he plays the clarinet in a band called The Yardies. Mark's life at university consists of lectures, individual study and research projects.

He only has twelve contact hours a week, so he spends the majority of his time working independently.

When Mark graduates, he hopes to find a graduate job and practice what he has learned at university.

VS Jez

Mark's best friend is called Jeremy. Jeremy is doing a higher apprenticeship in accountancy.

Jeremy works for a large accounting firm while studying towards professional qualifications with six other apprentices.

Jeremy attends a freestyle dance class with his fellow apprentices on weekends.

He’s halfway through his four-year apprenticeship. He receives a salary of £18,000 and plans to stay with his employer as a fully chartered accountant after the scheme has ended.

The average debt of a university graduate in the UK is £45,000, which sounds like a frightening amount.

However, it is important to remember that you will not have to start paying back your student loan until you are working and earning more than £27,295. So not that frightening.

SaveTheStudent has some stellar info on students loans and repayments.

If you want to avoid student debt altogether, consider doing an apprenticeship as an alternative to going to university.

Ultimately, it’s about the right fit for you

After you leave school, any decisions you make will define how you spend the next three to four years and seriously influence your future career.

Apprentices and university graduates are highly employable in a wide range of sectors. There are two separate, distinctive and rewarding paths for career-conscious young people to take after leaving school. Both paths sound inviting, so how to choose between them?

When the time comes to career plan for your life, it is essential that you do your research!

  • Research the courses on offer, the entry requirements for those courses and the employer runs them. Do they value experience or qualifications? Are there any reviews of the programme?
  • Visit a wide range of universities and attend their open days; they are an excellent opportunity to meet students and learn more about university life.
  • Read articles like this
  • Read through thousands of reviews from real-life apprentices
  • Use our interactive career tool, The 'Next Step' Explorer.
  • Seek out the advice of teachers, careers advisers, industry insiders, or former university students and apprentices. Find out as much as you can!

Put yourself in a position to make a confident and informed decision about your future that works for you.

That way, you might just avoid being stood atop a graduation stage in three years, wondering if you had made the right decision all those years ago.