Alternatives to university

Daniel Higginbotham, Editor
August, 2021

If you're concerned about student debt and committing to full-time study, there are many alternatives to university, including apprenticeships, other undergraduate qualifications and self-employment

As you consider what to do instead of university, you'll find that some employers offer training programmes aimed at school and college leavers. The terms used to advertise these programmes are often interchangeable, but you'll find numerous benefits that make them excellent alternatives to university.

For instance, you can:

  • learn while working and build job-specific skills from the outset
  • achieve qualifications as you earn a salary
  • increase your lifetime earnings
  • take advantage of opportunities for career progression
  • avoid student debt.

Higher apprenticeship

Lasting between one and five years, higher apprenticeships are at Level 4 and above on the Regulated Qualifications Framework (RQF). See how they fit in with other apprenticeship levels at what is an apprenticeship?

According to the government's apprenticeship statistics, more than a quarter of apprenticeships started in 2019/20 were at the higher level (51,400).

There are over 40 higher apprenticeship frameworks, in subjects ranging from accounting and banking, to engineering and construction, and the media and marketing.

As with other apprenticeships, you'll get the chance to gain practical experience while working towards a qualification that furthers your career. Part of your apprenticeship will be spent studying at a college, university or training centre, but this could be for one day a week, a block of several weeks or for the entire first year.

To get onto a higher apprenticeship - the equivalent of a foundation degree - you'll typically need a minimum of five GCSEs at grades 9-4 and Level 3 qualifications such as A-levels, an advanced level diploma, an NVQ Level 3 or an advanced apprenticeship.

The exact entry requirements will depend on the sector and your existing skills, and even after achieving A-levels, you may still have to begin at an intermediate or advanced level (Level 2 or 3 respectively). This is certainly the case for industries such as engineering, where relevant occupational skills are expected from the outset.

You'll receive a salary, but this can vary significantly depending on the company and sector. You're entitled to receive at least the national minimum wage for apprentices.

For those aged under 19, and those aged 19 and above during the first year, this is currently set at £4.30 per hour - although wages can be as much as £300 per week. Read more about pay and conditions at GOV.UK. - Become an apprentice.

In addition to working towards professional accreditation and membership, you may be awarded a qualification equivalent to an NVQ Level 4 or a foundation degree.

School and college leaver programmes follow a similar structure to higher apprenticeships. However, these don't always result in a formal qualification.

Read more about apprenticeships and search for higher apprenticeships at GOV.UK - Find an apprenticeship.

Entry-level job

These jobs don't usually require applicants to hold a relevant professional qualification and are available to both school and college leavers. Viewed as the entry-point into a specific vocation, some entry-level jobs don't even require applicants to have work experience in the field - as skills will often be developed through on-the-job training.

Many entry-level openings are on a full-time, permanent basis, but some may be on a temporary contract or restricted to part-time hours.

Examples include bookkeeping (accountancy), marketing and teaching (as assistants), and web development or business analysis (information technology).

There are three main types of entry-level job:

  • Traineeships - these are best described as a short course (lasting up to six months) with work experience that prepares you for an apprenticeship or work. While it's unpaid, you may be reimbursed for food and travel expenses.
  • Apprenticeships - they combine paid work with longer-term study that results in a formal qualification.
  • Employer-designed school leaver programmes - incorporating paid work with training, these schemes introduce you to the world of work, while leading to a professional qualification.

Pay increases are typically small in relative terms, meaning that several promotions may be required before average earning levels are reached.

Gap year

Taking a gap year allows you some thinking time before moving into work or further study. The phrase 'gap year' traditionally meant a period of time taken out by students after leaving college and before starting university. However, gap years can now happen at any stage, be taken by anyone, and for varying amounts of time.

Whether you choose to get involved with monkey conservation in Vietnam, farm work in Australia or simply wish to travel round America, your trip will require thorough planning and you'll need to set clear goals to make the most of the experience.

Taking a gap year could help you to develop the skills that employers want, raise your cultural awareness, increase your confidence and independence, improve your language ability and give you valuable work experience.

Be sure to check the current travel status of the country where you're planning to undertake your gap year. You can do this at GOV.UK - Foreign travel advice.

University can be expensive and a sponsored degree can help to meet the cost. This involves a company supporting you while you study - typically for three years, the same as a Bachelors degree - either with annual bursaries or a full salary. They may also cover your tuition fees, meaning you leave university with no student debt.

Many of these courses are now referred to as degree apprenticeships, with sponsored degrees mainly available in practical subjects such as science and engineering - although some leading employers also offer them in accountancy and finance, and IT.

Aside from the funding and employer support, another benefit is that in many cases you'll be guaranteed a job upon graduation. It's also a great opportunity to learn from those in the know, as you're likely to have a mentor to provide support and guidance.

A sponsored degree is a contract between you and the employer and as such they will expect something in return. For instance, this could mean working when your peers are on holiday from university.

If you're interested, you'll need to research companies that offer sponsored degrees. It's likely that they will dictate the university and subject - as many companies will have partner institutions.

For example, Morrisons' degree apprenticeship programmes in manufacturing, corporate, logistics, food technical and retail are in partnership with the University of Bradford and Sheffield Hallam University.

Read more about sponsored degrees by downloading UCAS' The complete guide to sponsored degrees.

Foundation degree or HND

Focused on building the skills employers look for, foundation degrees provide a strong platform for those looking to enter the workplace.

The equivalent of two-thirds of a full honours degree, they're usually offered by universities and further education (FE) colleges working in partnership. If courses are studied full time, they usually last two years. Part-time programmes take around four years to complete.

To find out more about the benefits of this qualification, see foundation degrees.

The Higher National Diploma (HND) is a vocational qualification usually studied full time for two years or four years part time. It can prepare you for a career in specific industries, such as engineering, business, hospitality, computer science, design or health and social care.

However, if you want to apply for a graduate scheme or graduate-level job, you'll need a full degree and so most HND graduates choose to 'top up' to this higher award.

Consider your options after graduation at HND courses.


If you've got a great idea, a sharp business mind and a determination to succeed then going it alone might be the route for you, as you consider your options other than university.

Flexible hours, independence and the potential for a higher salary are just some of the benefits of self-employment.

However, having the pressure of success or failure resting on your shoulders can be very stressful. Bear in mind that you won't receive holiday or sick pay, your income can be irregular and you could work much longer days than the typical employee.

Explore what it takes to be an entrepreneur, or follow our advice on how to start a business.

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