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Apprenticeships vs University – which should I choose?

So, you’ve nearly finished with school and might be wondering … what do I do next? Maybe you’re already in the workforce and considering upskilling in your field, or a complete career change? Do you go and get a degree at university, or do an apprenticeship and earn money while you study? It’s a big decision. Let’s break each option down to see which suits you the most.

Apprenticeship vs University: How to decide

  • Apprenticeships and a university degree can offer you different ways to build skills and get employed.
  • An apprenticeship is: funded by your employer, a way to earn and learn, and gives you practical, on-the-job experience.
  • A university degree involves: paying tuition fees, purely academic study, and attendance of seminars and lectures.
  • Degree apprenticeships can give you the best of both worlds, with practical work experience combined with some academic study and assessments, awarding you a degree at the end.
  • Apply to a degree apprenticeship through the QA website!


University used to be pretty much the sole option for higher education straight out of school. But now, things have changed, and apprenticeships are seen as a viable alternative to the classic university route – with employers valuing both university degrees and apprenticeships.

Both can provide you with the key experiences and qualifications needed for your chosen field of career, but they do differ in several ways. Understanding these differences will help you decide.

Each degree or apprenticeship programme will differ from provider to provider, so make sure to do your own research and find out what each involves. When weighing up each option, make sure you’re thinking about whether the content and end qualification meet your needs and prospective career goals.

What is an apprenticeship?

An apprenticeship is a form of higher education undertaken over an extended period with an employer’s supervision. It is practical, on-the-job work experience in which you receive wages for your time – and how much you get paid will depend on your age. It’s a great option for those who want to earn and learn at the same time.

Apprenticeships are geared more towards those who want to learn a particular trade or highly skilled job. While you work, the more experienced and qualified members of the company will train you in the practical sides of the trade. At the end of the apprenticeship, you will receive a certificate of the qualification to work independently. An apprenticeship can run for as many months or years as you and your employer agree to.

What is a university degree?

University is a highly structured form of education, in which you’ll end up with an academic degree upon finishing the course of study. This learning is performed through your attendance of a university – which is the academic institution which gives you the degree once you have completed your classes and assessments. This will usually also involve an extended dissertation project in your final year.

You can choose from a huge range of courses, delivered over a period of, on average, around three years. You can complete an undergraduate programme (your first degree), or a postgraduate programme such as a master’s, or even a PhD.

In the UK, university tuition fees are covered by a loan which is paid directly to the university by the government. This is paid back incrementally by yourself once your income exceeds a certain amount after university. You also qualify to receive a student loan to help support your living costs.

Key differences between an apprenticeship and university summarised:


University degree

On-the-job experience

Academic and research-based- through lectures, seminars and workshops

More specialised towards practical and skilled trade jobs

You have a choice of many hundreds of courses

Paid a salary

Students pay the university tuition fees

Assessed by employer who signs off key competencies needed to work independently

Assessed by university tutors who grade assessments/essays/labs, etc.

Receive a certification (NVQ, HNC or HND) at the end after satisfactory competition of tasks

Receive an academic degree after satisfactory completion of assessments and dissertation

Over as many months or years as your employer and you agree to

Usually around three years


Benefits of apprenticeships

  • You’ll be in the working world straight away and learning practical skills on the job.
  • You’ll earn money as you study – if you're under 25, the government and your employer will fund your training, so you don't have to pay a penny.
  • No tuition fees or student loans.
  • You’ll make industry contacts quickly in the direct field that you’re in.

Benefits of university

  • You can pick from tons of courses.
  • A degree could leave your career more open-ended, with potentially a broader range of careers open to you.
  • You will likely live away from home and gain more independence.
  • You’ll develop a range of soft skills transferable to many different roles.


Degree apprenticeships – the best of both?

You may have heard of QA’s degree apprenticeship programmes – but what is a degree apprenticeship and what can it offer you?

Who is a degree apprenticeship for?

Degree apprenticeships are usually aimed at 18- to 19-year-old school leavers – but are suited for more mature students too! It’s a great alternative to getting a degree – and is fit for those unsure about going to university due to high tuition fees, living costs, and student debt.

How do degree apprenticeships work?

With both bachelor’s and master’s programmes, you can get the best of both worlds – with an apprenticeship and a university degree combined. You can effectively get a head start in your chosen career, with the opportunity to get a paid-for bachelor’s or master’s degree while getting trade experience and earning a salary. They can take anywhere from 3 to 6 years to complete, depending on the course.

You will mostly be working, whilst studying part-time. This split will be more heavily weighted towards around 80% working time, with attendance of university the other 20% of the time. So, you’ll have to balance working and studying.

What does a degree apprenticeship cost?

Good news – typically absolutely nothing! Degree apprenticeships are fully funded by your employer. Of course, you would have to support yourself with your living costs – as you’re not a full-time student, you won’t qualify for a student loan.

For employers with an annual PAYE bill of £3m or more, degree apprentices can be funded through the Apprenticeship Levy payment. In return, employers get to upskill employees and hire new members of staff to address skills gaps in their organisation.

For smaller employers, the cost of course fees is shared between government (90%) and employers (10%).

QA’s degree apprenticeships

We run several programmes for every need, refining digital, tech, and management skills, with a track record of over 30 years of delivering training to thousands of organisations and 250,000+ learners a year. These degree apprenticeship programmes are run in partnership with the University of Roehampton, Solent University and Northumbria University, selected for their strengths in the disciplines they deliver.

A degree apprenticeship is a great way to build competence in both hard skills like digital programmes, and soft skills like interpersonal communication. Whether you’re studying management, digital marketing, or a tech degree, people skills and technical skills are equally vital. In such a digitally focused economy, a degree apprenticeship is a great way to develop the specific skills that employers, and the economy, need. Think: artificial intelligence, machine learning, digital transformation, business transformation, data analysis, entrepreneurship and more.

Not to mention you get a degree at the end of it – maximising your chances of standing out from the crowd!

How is it different from a ‘standard’ university experience?

You’ll be a part-time student, so you won’t qualify for on-campus accommodation, a student loan, or have as much free time (as you’ll be working!). However, you do still get the university experience with the ability to join societies, student gyms, and go to the student union bars, etc.

You will have to self-manage, as you’ll be both working and studying. For many students, however, this pressure and variety is very motivating.

Remember, you won’t necessarily get all the holidays that students will either – you’ll be working year-round. But you are qualified to around 28 days’ leave a year, just like any other employee, with most employers also allowing some study-leave in order to prepare for exams.

Will I get a guaranteed job afterwards?

While there is no guarantee of a job after your degree apprenticeship, graduate level employers often favour practical experience in the workplace. As a degree apprentice, you will gain up to multiple years of work experience while you work towards a degree. This means that you will be a particularly employable graduate, and will very likely stay on with your degree apprenticeship employer or be snapped up by a different company after you’ve gained your qualification.

Pros of a degree apprenticeship

You’ll get industry experience while working alongside your degree.

You’ll get some of the student experience of university!

The degree is fully paid for by your employer, so no tuition fees.

You’ll get paid a salary just like other employees.

You’ll be very employable, with academic skills as well as practical trade skills.

How do I apply?

You can apply to QA’s degree apprenticeships through our website, by submitting an enquiry form. Start dates are every few months – so there’s no need to wait a full year to get started!

View degree apprenticeships


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