Qualifications vs apprenticeships – which is best for me?

It can be tough deciding on the most suitable career path. Should you continue to study for more advanced qualifications? Or is earning some money and gaining more practical experience as an apprentice a better route?

The answer will depend on many things; these will include your personal and financial situation and your strengths and interests.

It’s also important to know that apprenticeships in the UK provide the chance to combine practical training with some study. Successful apprentices are awarded a qualification too.

Whatever path you decide on, researching your options is a good start.

Here’s a helpful guide to the main differences between following an academic path through to university or opting for a more practical apprenticeship:

Options for post-16 educational qualifications

If you choose to focus on academic studies after leaving school, it’s likely you’ll study A-levels (or Highers in Scotland). This normally involves two years of full-time study and allows you to deep-dive into a range of subjects you enjoy.

BTEC diplomas and NVQs are other qualifications offered by further education colleges. A BTEC diploma involves some practical elements and a work-related focus, whereas a NVQ is a more specialist vocational qualification which is ideal for someone who already knows what job they want to do.

Often students who have completed their A-levels or BTEC diplomas continue to university. This allows them to choose from thousands of different undergraduate courses, which usually last around two to four years. While studying for a degree, you will:

    • develop transferable knowledge and skills, giving you a broad range of future career opportunities
    • pay tuition fees (unless you’re Scottish and studying in Scotland)
    • be able to experience the social side of university life, including networking at clubs and societies.

Following an undergraduate course, it’s possible to study for postgraduate and postdoctoral qualifications. These may open up specialist career paths in areas such as law, education and health.

What is an apprenticeship?

Apprenticeships combine practical on-the-job training with study. During an apprenticeship, you will:

    • be a paid employee, with a holiday entitlement
    • learn valuable job-specific skills under the guidance of experienced colleagues
    • spend some time studying the theory behind the role, either at a college or university or in the workplace.

You have to be at least 16 to become an apprentice, although some people choose to study at college for two years and then apply for an apprenticeship at 18. Others opt to become an apprentice later on in life.

Depending on the level, apprenticeships usually take around two to six years to complete. As an apprentice, your tuition fees are covered by the government and your employer if you are between 16 and 24 years old.

In England, there are four main levels of apprenticeships:

Level Equivalent educational level
Intermediate 2 GCSE
Advanced 3 A level
Higher 4,5,6 and 7 Foundation degree and above
Degree 6 and 7 Bachelor’s or master’s degree

Figure 1. UK Apprenticeship levels (source: www.gov.uk/become-apprentice).

The entry requirements for different levels of apprenticeships will vary. The government has a register of end-point-assessment organisations (EPAOs). EPAOs are quality checked and take responsibility for the final assessment of the apprentice.

Although they follow the same principles, the management and type of apprenticeships differ in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.

Educational qualifications vs apprenticeships

Studying at college and university can earn you well-respected qualifications. It also allows you to keep your career options open and have a varied and interesting social experience.

The career advice services at universities are well-equipped at helping you think through your future options once you’ve had longer to find out where your strengths and interests lie.

Government figures show that university graduates are more likely to be employed and, on average, earn £10,000 more a year than non-graduates.

Apprenticeships, on the other hand, allow you to start earning immediately. A report from the Sutton Trust also showed how someone with a higher apprenticeship averages higher earnings than someone with a degree from a non-Russell Group university over the course of their lifetime.

Apprenticeships are increasingly prestigious, and many of the higher and degree level options are competitive. Although it’s true that apprenticeships are best suited to those who already have a clear idea of what field they want to work in, there are a broad range of opportunities. These include engineering, law, nursing, media and business.

A lifetime of learning opportunities

Above all, it’s important to remember that learning opportunities won’t finish when you complete a university course or an apprenticeship.

There is now an emphasis in education on lifelong learning. This means that you can always develop new skills and earn different qualifications further along your career.

In fact, many people successfully study for A-levels and degrees and become apprentices later on in life.

The important thing now is to research your options and make an informed decision with the knowledge that, whatever your route, there’s a world of future learning opportunities out there.

Explore our courses today to see the wide range of educational possibilities.




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