School leavers’ options: Higher Apprenticeships vs. university

We’ve taken a look at these school leavers’ options so you can assist your students who have done well at A-level but might be looking for something different to university – a Higher Apprenticeship could be the answer. 

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Any students with A-levels have plenty of school leavers’ options open to them: two of which are university degrees and Higher Apprenticeships. Both come with their own set of advantages.

Higher Apprenticeships are the third level of apprenticeships, leading to a Level 4 or above qualification – the equivalent of a higher education qualification – without any of the debt associated with a university degree, and with a salary. It’s worth noting though that the qualifications gained on a Higher Apprenticeship are not usually a whole bachelor’s degree, it is more likely to be a professional qualification relevant to the apprentice’s job and industry.

As Higher Apprentices are a step above Advanced and Intermediate Apprenticeships, school leavers on these schemes will likely get paid more than other apprentices. For example, PwC offer £23,000 for their three-year Higher Apprenticeship programme.

Higher Apprenticeships give school leavers the opportunity to earn while they learn. Qualifications that Higher apprentices might work towards include a Level 4 or above competence qualification, Functional Skills and, in some cases, a knowledge-based qualification, such as a foundation degree or HND.

Completing a Higher Apprenticeship is the equivalent to higher education, with added work-based experience. Apprentices also gain relevant technical certificates or qualifications (depending on your type of apprenticeship).

The range of employers offering Higher Apprenticeships is also pretty impressive – doing a Higher Apprenticeship could mean being employed by a seriously high-profile company, such as PwC, National Grid, Mercedes-Benz, and Deloitte.

Higher Apprenticeships can also be shorter than university degrees, meaning that apprentices could get ahead on the career ladder sooner than their peers who go to university, and they’ll get a head start on building up practical experience of the workplace and important ‘soft skills’ – leadership, teamwork, communication skills – and problem-solving skills right away. 

Higher Apprenticeships give school leavers the opportunity to earn while they learn. Qualifications that Higher apprentices might work towards include a Level 4 or above competence qualification, Functional Skills and, in some cases, a knowledge-based qualification, such as a foundation degree or HND.

These are vital for the world of work, which many employers say that university degree graduates are lacking – going on to a Higher Apprenticeship could give school leavers a better grounding in these skills than a degree.

A Higher Apprenticeship will also not leave you saddled with the student debt associated with a university degree: a typical student on a three-year course outside of London will to graduate with around £35,000 - £40,000 of student loan. This loan accrues interest; in England, for example this is 5.5%. After graduation, yearly repayments are set at 9% of whatever is earned above £21,000, regardless of the total loan amount.

However, there are advantages to doing a university degree. Some careers (e.g. doctors) and jobs (e.g. graduate positions) specifically require a degree, so if that’s the case then a degree is obviously the only choice for a student.

There’s the wider range of options too: if school leavers decide to apply to university, they will have the luxury of choosing from hundreds of universities and thousands of courses; Higher Apprenticeships, on the other hand, are fairly restrictive – school leavers can only take one with the companies that offer them.

Furthermore, school leavers will be required to study a vocational course which is relevant to their Higher Apprenticeship, rather than having the total freedom to apply to any university course if they do a degree (assuming they have the right A-levels). If a student fancies studying art history, for instance, they won’t get the chance to do so as part of a Higher Apprenticeship.

The best way for a school leaver to decide between degrees and Higher Apprenticeships to figure out their own personal long-term priorities, and go with the option that best serves them.