Apprenticeship or University?


So, GCSE pupils, you’re at a fork in the higher education road? Relax - we’re here to help.

If you want to go onto university, you’ll have to take A-levels first, but if you want to do an apprenticeship you have the choice to leave school after GCSEs and take up your training programme, or take A-levels before beginning a higher apprenticeship.

Let’s take a look at both options.


Not only will you avoid student debt, but you’ll actually be paid to learn: something almost unheard of these days. The minimum that apprentices are entitled to depends on their age and length of time on a programme. Starting at £3.50 (as of April 2017) per hour – if an apprentice is under 19 or in their first year – this rises to £5.55 in the second year for those aged 18 to 20, then to £6.95 for 21-24-year-olds, and then up to the National Living Wage of £7.20 if they are over 25.

Apprentices aged 18 must be paid the standard National Minimum Wage after 12 months, as of April 2017, hence the lift up to £5.55 an hour for apprentices falling into the 18-22 bracket. Those younger or within the first year of their programme will receive at least £3.50 an hour as of April 2017, up from the previous rate of £3.40 an hour.

This comes after the minimum wage for apprentices increased from £3.30 an hour to £3.40 in October 2016, along with a rise in the general National Minimum Wage.

Employers are free to pay above the new wage and many do so, but employers must ensure that they are paying their apprentices at least the minimum wage.

The average weekly wage for an apprentice is actually around £200, dependant on the sector, region and apprenticeship level. For example, some higher apprenticeships can pay as much as £300-£500 per week.

Those who do get paid the minimum might be eligible to receive benefits from the government on top of their wage: it’s worth exploring the funding options out there.

Higher Apprenticeships and Degree Apprenticeships often pay higher than the National Minimum Wage and National Apprenticeship Minimum Wage; a £16,000 starting salary, for example, with regular pay reviews just like a standard employee would receive. Some HIgher Apprenticeship employers pay as high as £23,000 per year. 

Those who do get paid the minimum might be eligible to receive benefits from the government on top of their wage: it’s worth exploring the funding options out there.

Depending on which type of apprenticeship you do, you could also be qualified and in work before, or at the same time as, your peers emerge from university, looking around for their first proper jobs. You will already have worked in a proper job for a number of years alongside your training, making you super employable (as well as debt-free, of course).

Even if you take A-levels, you could still go down the apprentice route. Higher apprenticeships are the crème de la crème of apprenticeships, bearing many similarities to school leaver programmes (in fact, many school leaver programmes include a higher apprenticeship as part of their training programme) but tend to be shorter.

You can also get qualifications like foundation degrees, HNDs and undergraduate degrees as part of a Higher Apprenticeship. Apprentices can usually top up their qualifications after the apprenticeship too. 

Sound appealing? If you want to see what apprenticeships are out there, take a look at our jobs board. Then all that remains is to hone that CV and cover letter, and get ready to smash your apprenticeship interview. 

Apprenticeships aren’t for everyone though: as people tend to start them younger than university degrees, the drop-out rate is quite high. It’s also not necessarily the right choice for every profession: you might find at some point in your career that you hit a glass ceiling, one which only a degree will get you through.


Of course, university is also a great choice for a lot of people. As well as a killer social life and being able to move away from home, a university education in the UK is respected the world-over.

However, this comes at an infamously steep price. Most full-time students need a tuition fee loan, which covers the full cost of the tuition fee and maintenance loan, to help pay for living costs at university. These are added together to give the total amount of debt.

A typical student on a three-year course outside of London, will graduate with around £35,000 - £40,000 of student debt. This loan accrues interest; in England for example this is 3.9%.

After graduation, yearly repayments range from being 0.9% to 3.9% depending on the income of the individual. 

Despite the money involved, the latest Office of National Statistics report comparing graduates to non-graduates found that: 

  • Graduates were more likely to be employed than those who left education with qualifications of a lower standard
  • Non-graduates aged 21-30 have consistently higher unemployment rates than all other groups
  • Non-graduates aged 21-30 have much higher inactivity rates than recent graduates.

Also, research has shown that graduate starting salaries at the UK’s leading graduate employers is, on average, a whopping £29,000. A quarter of top graduate programmes will pay new recruits more than £35,000 when they start work and ten organisations are offering at least £40,000 to this year’s graduates. Obviously this isn’t the case for everyone, but these are positions only available to university graduates.

Student debt, even though it can be large, does not affect the borrower’s credit rating, as student loans are not included on credit reference files.

Any outstanding student debt is written off after 30 years, even if nothing has been paid back during that time (because the borrower wasn’t working or was earning below £21,000).

In fact, studies have estimated that over 70% of graduates won’t have paid their full loan back after 30 years.

So, there you have it – both apprenticeships and university have massive pros and a few cons. Now, the choice is yours!  

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