Apprenticeship, university… or both?

As a journalist and academic, I’m often asked if university degrees are the best route to a successful career. Of course I believe strongly in the value of a degree, but I also work in a trade that needs no formal qualifications. My advice might frustrate young people searching for the right answer, because there isn’t one – especially when weighing the pros and cons of a degree against an apprenticeship.

Apprenticeship or degree large

While many flourish in the three years of independent study a degree offers, others prosper as an apprentice in the professional world, gaining qualifications and earning a salary while they work. Add to that the fact some organisations offer degree-apprenticeships and the decision can be even tougher.

The widening scope of apprenticeships

Apprenticeships are no longer just for vocational trades. According to the UK government’s Apprenticeship frameworks: live list there are over 150 types available, from legal services to technology, banking, accountancy and engineering. Apprenticeships are becoming an increasingly popular path into the business world.

With satisfaction high and 90% of apprentices going into work or further training, employers are seeing the opportunities apprenticeships offer to equip employees with the skills their organisation needs. What's more, the Apprenticeship Levy means employers now have an even greater incentive to home-grow the talent they need now and for the future.

What do parents think?

Although 63% of parents say they'd be happy for their child to do an apprenticeship or join the workforce directly rather than go to university straight from college, every situation is unique. There's still much uncertainty about the best route to feeling fulfilled in a successful career. Jobs for life are things of the past, and 30% of parents worry they don't understand today's working world.

The good news is, parents can do much to help their child make informed and mature choices.

Qualifications matter

An apprenticeship needn’t mean giving up on a degree — degree apprenticeships are available now, with more qualifications in development. Many apprenticeships also offer the same professional qualifications that graduates work toward once they begin employment.

Apprenticeships have evolved to suit the times, with programmes such as the EY Degree Apprenticeship in Digital Innovation, which offers a career in technology and funded tuition.

A standalone degree from a prestigious university will also be widely respected once your child enters the world of work. It’s something that graduates can always be proud of, and will hold its value if they switch careers.

Financial independence

As tuition fees and costs of living rise, finances are a major consideration for young people. According to the Institute for Fiscal Studies, a three-year degree will cost £44,000.Apprentices are entitled to at least the national minimum wage and are often offered good starting salaries alongside training.

As well as being financially independent years earlier, apprentices may learn hard lessons about managing money sooner than their student counterparts. It’s a myth too that graduates attract greater salaries – in some sectors those who start as apprentices may earn 270% more across a lifetime.

Career development

Young people can learn transferable skills like complex problem solving, collaboration and emotional intelligence at university or in the workplace. Yet if you take a degree or apprenticeship with a narrow focus and later decide to switch paths, you may have to retrain from entry level.

During a degree course, young people come across professionals from all walks of life, but the working world also brings networking opportunities, interactions with diverse colleagues and clients, and a variety of career paths to explore.

Social life

The days when students spent more time watching daytime TV than in the lecture hall are long gone. Modern students want value from their degrees, and are more likely to be found in the library or pushing for more contact hours than drinking cheap pints. Students may have more flexible schedules and time for socialising, but apprentices can take advantage of earning a salary — spending it on travel, sports and other interests.


If you’re a parent who wants to give your child the best advice, the first step is to unlearn out-of-date career advice. Look at Bill Gates, Mark Zuckerberg and Steve Jobs — all three are so-called ‘university drop-outs’ who discovered unconventional routes to success.

It might be time to sit down with your teenager, however reluctant they are, and get them thinking about what's important to them. Are they best suited to formal education, or are they ready to explore the working world? Will their character benefit from independent study, or will they thrive in a professional team? Whichever it is, point out that the ability to make a good cup of tea will be of eternal value.


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Sophie Morris
  • Sophie Morris

About the author

Sophie Morris is a freelance journalist, university lecturer and media consultant, writing for newspapers and digital media brands.