Degrees vs apprenticeships

When headlines are constantly suggesting that universities are dishing out first class degrees like no there’s no tomorrow, how much does a grade really reflect our employability skills?

After ten years in education, three more years of academic studying whilst racking up to £50,000 worth of debt, university may not seem like the most appealing option, especially if you’re not someone who succeeds with essays, exams or rigorous testing. On the other hand, unsure about what career to do, university can seem like the preferred option, offering more time to explore your interests, a chance to move out of home, gain independence, and the perceived social life of being a student.

If your school was anything like mine, university was something from the outset, whereas apprenticeships were seen as the lesser option; something that was not nearly given as much guidance or information, despite the potential benefits of them. So biases aside, how do apprenticeships really compare to a degree? Is a degree really worth it?

Apprenticeships combine work and study, allowing you to ‘earn while you learn’. You’ll be employed to do a real job while studying for a formal qualification which could range from a vocational qualification to a degree or masters.

Moreover, you may be surprised at the scope of apprenticeships on offer. I had always perceived apprenticeships as dominated by the stereotypical manual trades and engineering sector. However, they do in fact span a range of industries and job roles – for instance, accountancy, IT, law, media, publishing and journalism. The government has also pledged to create a further three million apprenticeships by 2020, suggesting an increase in the variety of them.

As a paid employee, each apprentice works alongside their studies, and legally an employer must pay the National Minimum Wage which for apprentices is currently £3.50 per hour. Whilst this may seem small, there are no student fees or debt, your training costs are funded by the government and your employer, and there are examples of both higher and degree apprenticeship adverts offering salaries of between £16,000 and £24,000 per year.

For these reasons, it’s an ideal option if you have a clear idea of the career path you want to follow, providing you with practical, on-the-job training, and classroom-based instruction.

According to research by The Sutton Trust, when examining the earning potential of university graduates and apprentices, it found that top apprentices can expect to earn thousands more in their lifetime than undergraduates from a non-Russell Group university. In fact, those who opt to study for a level 5 higher apprenticeship will earn £1.5million during the course of their career, almost £52,000 more than graduates from non-elite universities who can expect to earn £1.4million. However, students from top Russell Group universities come out on top with estimated lifetime earnings of £1.6million.

Whilst an apprenticeship may seem like the better option for some, for those who are unclear on a career, then spending three years at university meeting new people and figuring out who you are, might push you to work out what it is you really want to do. Not to mention the opportunities that come with going to university, like networking, clubs and societies.

Clearly, it depends on the individual apprenticeship and university. Ultimately, it seems apprenticeships are often underrated and do not hold the recognition they deserve, and if you’re lucky enough to land a good one you are pretty much set for the future. However, the question between university or an apprenticeship really boils down to which route is right for you. Does the university experience outweigh that of an apprenticeship? Or is going straight into work, immediately earning money and avoiding thousands of debt the better option? It’s not an easy question.

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June 2022
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The University of East Anglia’s official student newspaper. Concrete is in print and online.

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