Apprenticeship vs University: what’s the best route after school? 

Signpost showing learn more in one direction above earn more in another direction in front of bright blue sky

Choosing your path after school can feel daunting, especially with two exciting options like university and apprenticeships beckoning. Both offer different experiences leading to rewarding careers, but which one aligns with your dreams and ambitions?

Let’s clear the air: this blog post compares the classic university path with traditional apprenticeships, focusing on the key differences in learning style, cost and career prospects.

Shop manager helping retail apprentice at the till in a cycling shop

What about degree apprenticeships?

There are also higher and degree apprenticeship programmes, which are a relatively new and exciting option, combining the strengths of both universities and traditional apprenticeships. While this blog doesn’t delve into them specifically, it’s important to acknowledge their existence and encourage further research if they interest you.

To help, we’ve included the key differences between university, apprenticeships and degree apprenticeships in a handy table at the end of this blog.

Apprenticeship vs university: pros and cons

This guide will explore the pros and cons, statistics and key differences between the two, empowering you to make an informed decision. We’ll look at the pros and cons of each individually then compare them both.

Two people in high visibility jackets and hard hats smiling sharing an engineering task in the sunshine

University: pros and cons

Academic life beckons with the freedom to choose subjects at university that truly spark your curiosity. You’ll gain theoretical knowledge, hone your critical thinking and cultivate valuable transferable skills like communication, research and teamwork.


  • Wide range of subjects: Explore your interests by learning about university subject areas and disciplines before specialising.
  • Develop critical thinking: Learn to analyse, evaluate and form your own conclusions.
  • Networking opportunities: Meet diverse people, build connections and expand your professional network.
  • Potential for higher earning potential: Graduates generally earn more in the long run (though debt may come into play).


  • Cost and debt: You’ll have to factor in student loans and associated costs.
  • Potentially fewer opportunities for practical training.
  • Longer timeframe: Takes 3-4 years to complete, delaying your entry into the workforce.
Three degree apprentices smiling discussing work around a laptop in a modern office space

Apprenticeships: pros and cons

Apprenticeships offer a hands-on approach, immersing you in a chosen field while earning a salary. You’ll gain practical skills, learn from experienced professionals and potentially secure a permanent position with your employer upon completion.


  • Earn while you learn: No university fees and a regular income from the start.
  • Gain practical skills: Learn by doing, gaining valuable industry-specific experience.
  • Higher chance of employment: Develop strong connections and increase your chances of securing a permanent role within the company.
  • Faster entry into the workforce: Takes 1-4 years to complete, depending on the level, but you’ll already be in the workplace and able to start your career sooner.


  • Limited subject choice: Focused on a specific industry or role, with less flexibility.
  • Possible lower earning potential: Starting salaries may be lower than graduate salaries.
  • Less academic focus: Less emphasis on theoretical knowledge and broader skill development.
university students walking side by side down a leafy path holding books

Comparing salaries and statistics

University graduates in the UK typically earn 17% more than those with Level 4 apprenticeships (equivalent to the first two years of a degree) over their lifetime. However, starting salaries for apprentices can be comparable to some entry-level graduate roles.

When deciding what to study at university or looking into an apprenticeship, remember: Earnings potential doesn’t solely define success. Choose the path that aligns with your learning style, career aspirations and financial goals.

5 tips when deciding between university and an apprenticeship

  1. There’s no “one size fits all” answer. Both paths lead to fulfilling careers, so choose the one that excites you most.
  2. Research thoroughly. Explore available options, talk to people in your desired field, and attend university open days and apprenticeship fairs.
  3. Consider your learning style. Do you thrive in theoretical environments or hands-on settings?
  4. Think about your financial situation. Can you afford university fees, or does earning while you learn appeal to you?
  5. The choice is yours. Embrace the journey, be confident in your decision and remember, both university and apprenticeships can unlock your potential for a bright and fulfilling future!

Bonus Tip: Check out government websites and career guidance resources for detailed information on specific universities, apprenticeship schemes and financial aid options.

Student taking a book from university library shelves

University vs. apprenticeship: A side-by-side comparison

Choosing your path after school can be tough, so let’s compare the key features of university and apprenticeships to help you decide which path best suits your goals and aspirations.

Feature University Apprenticeship
Learning Style More theoretical, focused on developing critical thinking and research skills More hands-on, focused on gaining practical skills in a specific field
Subjects Wide range of subjects to explore Focused on a specific industry or role
Cost High fees, potential for significant student loan debt No fees, you earn a salary while you learn
Timeframe 3-4 years to complete 1-4 years to complete, depending on the level
Starting Salary May be higher eventually Comparable to entry-level graduate roles
Earning Potential Generally higher over a lifetime Lower initially, but potential for growth within the company
Networking Opportunities Meet diverse people, build connections across various fields Develop strong connections within a specific industry
Career Flexibility More flexibility to change careers later Less flexibility as the focus is on a specific role
Debt Possible significant student loan debt No debt upon completion

Ready to take the next step and apply to uni?

Not sure which path is right for you? Explore our other posts and guides on how to get to university as an undergraduate. If you’ve a good idea what you are going to do next, you can search for undergraduate courses or take a closer look at the facilities and locations where you might be studying.

By following these tips and exploring your options thoroughly, you’ll be well equipped to navigate this exciting chapter and set yourself on the path to success.

Helpful information and question if you’re still unsure about apprenticeships or university education

Q: What are the differences between apprenticeship and university education?

A: Apprenticeships provide on-the-job training and lead to vocational qualifications, while university education focuses on academic learning and grants degrees.

Q: Can I go to university without doing an apprenticeship?

A: Yes, you can attend university without completing an apprenticeship. Universities typically have their own entry requirements for admission. You can also get into university without A-levels if you have other qualifications and experience that counts.

Q: What is the earning potential after completing a degree apprenticeship?

A: Graduates of degree apprenticeships often have high earning potential due to gaining work experience alongside their qualification. Some research shows that some higher level apprentices have higher earning potential.

Q: Do apprenticeships really offer an alternative to university?

A: Yes, apprenticeships provide an alternative path to gaining qualifications and practical skills without attending a traditional university.

Q: How do tuition fees compare between university and apprenticeship programmes?

A: University education usually involves tuition fees, whereas apprentices do not have to pay tuition as they earn a wage during their training.

Q: What are the entry requirements for an apprenticeship qualification?

A: Entry requirements for apprenticeships vary depending on the type of apprenticeship and the employer offering the programme.

Q: Which option is best for me, going to university or doing an apprenticeship?

A: The choice between university and apprenticeship depends on your career goals, preferred learning style and desired work experience.

Understanding the differences between university, apprenticeship, and degree apprenticeship

As we explained earlier an apprenticeship is somewhat different from a degree apprenticeship, here’s an outline comparison of all three.

Feature University Apprenticeship Degree Apprenticeship
Focus Academic knowledge and critical thinking Practical skills in a specific industry Blend of academic learning and practical skills in a specific industry
Typical duration 3-4 years 1-4 years 3-4 years
Cost High fees, potential for student loan debt No fees, you earn a salary while you learn No fees, you earn a salary while you learn
Qualifications Bachelor’s degree or higher Diploma or vocational qualification Bachelor’s degree or higher
Flexibility More flexibility to change careers Less flexibility, focused on a specific industry Moderate flexibility depending on the chosen field