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Jobs & Careers

What are the alternatives to university?

Not sure whether you want to go to university? There are plenty of other options out there, from apprenticeships to entry-level jobs – we'll take you through what you could do instead.

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There's one big question everyone is obsessed with right now: is university worth it?

Although we could go round in circles debating this for hours, our simple answer would be yes for some people, and no for others.

Studying for a degree is a fantastic experience that can open so many doors for students, but that doesn't mean it's for everyone – there are plenty of alternatives to university.

We'll run through the pros and cons of going to university, why you shouldn't let student debt put you off and what to do instead of uni if you don't think it's the right choice for you.

Do you have to go to university?

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Credit: Objective Productions

Going to university is an amazing opportunity, and many students and graduates will tell you it's the best decision they've ever made.

But that doesn't mean that university is for everyone, and since it's such a big commitment of time and money, it's worth taking the time to figure out whether it's definitely right for you.

If you're thinking about not going to university

Many students feel pressured into going to university by their parents, teachers or even society as a whole because it's often still considered 'the norm' after A Levels. So, try asking yourself these questions first:

  • Where do you want to be in 10 years time?
  • Do you definitely need a degree to reach this goal?
  • Are there any alternatives you could consider?
  • Have you found a suitable course and university?

Try not to put too much pressure on yourself to make a decision straight away. Writing down the answers to these questions on a piece of paper and then reading them a few days later might help you gain some perspective if you're struggling to decide if uni is the right choice.

How to decide if you should go to university

If you're still on the fence about whether university is right for you, here are some reasons to go to university and how going to uni can help you in the future.

5 reasons you should go to university

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Credit: NBC

Here are the best things about going to university and being a student:

  1. Study a subject you love – Become an expert and follow your interests
  2. Pursue a specific career path – You can't become a doctor without a degree in Medicine, for instance
  3. Gain independence – The uni lifestyle prepares students for adult life
  4. Higher earning potential – Graduates tend to earn more money over their careers
  5. Gain high-level transferable skills – Things like research, analysis and team management.

We've also listed some reasons why going to university might not be the right choice for you.

5 reasons you shouldn't go to university

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Credit: Universal Pictures

Here are the worst things about going to university and being a student:

  1. It can be expensive – The Maintenance Loan isn't always enough to cover your rent and other living costs
  2. It takes time – You'll usually have to give up at least three years to get a degree
  3. You're not guaranteed a graduate job – Some industries are very competitive
  4. Student debt takes years to pay off – Although it's not as bad as you think
  5. Employers often expect more than a degree – Internships and extracurricular activities are often essential too.
If you do decide to apply to university, have a look at these tips on how to write a personal statement.

How much does university cost?

money bags uni

The rising cost of a university education is in the news all the time, so you'd be forgiven for thinking that you simply can't afford to go to university – I mean, who has £9,250 a year to spare?

However, university is a lot more affordable than you probably think. Here is a breakdown of the costs and how they'll be covered:

  • Tuition fees – These cost up to £9,250 a year, and the majority of unis will charge full whack. However, a Tuition Fee Loan from the government will cover the whole thing, and you'll pay it back at a later date.
  • Living costs – You'll receive a Maintenance Loan from the government to cover your living expenses. How much you receive depends on how much your parents earn – if their combined income is over £25,000 a year, they'll be expected to contribute. However, our recent survey has found the Maintenance Loan doesn't stretch far enough – leaving a £340 monthly shortfall on average.
  • Total costs – Add all this together and it's not uncommon to graduate from university with debts of over £50,000. While this sounds terrifying, the repayment terms are easy and manageable. If you have a Plan 2 loan and earn under £27,295 a year, you won't pay back anything at all. Plus, after 30 years the debt is usually wiped, even if you haven't paid any of it back. Our guide to repaying your Student Loan goes into this in much more depth.

Our advice would be not to focus too much on the debt, but to instead think about what you'll gain from a degree in the long run. If you want an even more detailed breakdown of how much it'll cost you to study across the UK, check out our guide on how much university costs.

Thinking that only rich people can afford university is just one of a number of Student Finance myths.

8 alternatives to university

If you decide that university isn't for you, don't panic! There are plenty more options out there, it's just that many students don't know they exist.

We'll take you through some of the common university alternatives:

  1. Degree apprenticeships

    woman wearing glasses working on a laptop

    Qualifications needed: A Levels or other Level 3 qualifications such as a BTEC Level 3 diploma, but this may vary from employer to employer
    Length: Three to six years 
    Best for: Those who want a degree, while also gaining workplace skills and graduating without debt.

    Degree apprenticeships combine the academic study of a university degree, with the hands-on, practical experience of an apprenticeship.

    Courses vary but you'll typically be working for three or four days a week and studying at university for one or two days, with extra time off from work around exams to revise.

    You'll graduate with a full university bachelor's degree (Level 6), the same as a standard student, but you'll have a huge amount of work experience under your belt too. In some cases, you can even go up to master's level (Level 7).

    The best part is that, although you'll have to cover your own living costs, your training and tuition fees will be paid for by your employer and the government (so no debt!), and you'll be paid a salary for your work. You'll also receive typical full-time employee benefits such as a pension.

    Degree apprenticeships are usually for STEM subjects like Engineering and Electronics, but can also be a gateway to accountancy, the police force, financial services, sales and marketing, and even environmental health.

    The qualification was only launched in 2015, so degree apprenticeships are not as widespread or well-known as other levels of apprenticeship and at the moment the scheme is only available in England and Wales, although applications may be made from all parts of the UK.

    Unlike typical undergrad university courses, you apply directly through the relevant employer, rather than UCAS. However, UCAS do have a handy search tool that allows you to hunt for degree apprenticeships, and you can also search on the official government website.

  2. Foundation degrees

    man laying building plans on table

    Qualifications needed: No set entry requirements, but work experience may be deemed helpful in some cases
    Length: Two years (or three to four years if studying part-time)
    Best for: Those who want to continue working in an industry they're passionate about while studying for a qualification or are unable to commit to a full three-year degree.

    A foundation degree is essentially two-thirds of a full honours degree. Like an apprenticeship, it's a qualification designed to prepare you for a specific area of work by combining academic study and work experience, and they're usually organised by universities in partnership with colleges.

    Students can move on to full-time employment after graduating, but many students choose to 'top up' a foundation degree with a further year of study to turn it into a full honours degree.

    If you want to do a full-time foundation degree, you apply through UCAS, much like you would with a standard degree, and you'll also be eligible for the same Student Finance support (foundation degrees cost around £2,600 a year).

    If you want to do a part-time foundation degree, you should apply directly to the university or college offering the qualification.

    Note that a foundation degree is not the same as a foundation year – a year of study at the beginning of an undergraduate degree to equip students with the necessary knowledge and skills needed to complete the course.

    We've also got some tips on how to choose what to study at university if you think uni might be for you but aren't sure what degree you'd like to do.
  3. Higher apprenticeships

    man welding

    Qualifications needed: Usually five GCSEs grades A*–C (9–4 on the new grading system) including English and Maths subjects, and level 3 qualifications such as A Levels, NVQs or a BTEC
    Length: One to five years
    Best for: Gaining practical workplace skills, and becoming qualified for a role that doesn't require a degree.

    Higher apprenticeships are often referred to interchangeably with degree apprenticeships, but they are actually two different qualifications.

    While a degree apprenticeship provides students with a full bachelor's degree (a Level 6 qualification), a higher apprenticeship will get you a Level 4 or above (equivalent to a foundation degree or the first year of an undergraduate degree). Some offer the opportunity to progress to a Level 7, which is Masters level.

    You'll be working full-time (and getting paid a wage) to gain the practical skills needed for the role, but also carrying out part-time study at a college, university or training provider. The costs of this are fully funded by the government and your employer.

    Although you aren't guaranteed a job at the end of it, government figures state that 90% of apprentices stay on in employment after their apprenticeship, and 71% stay with the same employer.

    Higher apprenticeships are offered in industries such as construction, agriculture, animal care, the arts, publishing, media, business, law, engineering, IT, retail, healthcare and much more. You can search for higher apprenticeships through UCAS.

  4. Traineeships

    someone putting wires in a computer

    Qualifications needed: No set entry requirements, but you do need to be aged between 16 and 24
    Length: Six weeks to one year
    Best for: Those lacking the qualifications or experience needed for an apprenticeship.

    Traineeships are short courses with work experience designed to prepare students for a full apprenticeship or full-time work. Students typically complete a traineeship if they don't yet have the necessary qualifications to be accepted onto an apprenticeship.

    Unlike apprenticeships, you don't get paid – but you will likely get travel and food expenses reimbursed. While gaining vital workplace skills and securing valuable work experience, you'll also get Maths and English support to boost your job prospects and earning potential.

    Use the official government website to find traineeships near you.

  5. Entry-level jobs

    two baristas standing behind the till in a coffee shop

    Qualifications needed: Varies and in some cases none
    Length: Indefinite
    Best for: Those who want to go straight into the work field.

    Entry-level jobs are just what they say on the tin – jobs designed for school leavers without the need for higher education qualifications.

    Some might require certain grades or work experience, while others will just want to see enthusiasm and a good work ethic. Some roles will be full-time and permanent, while others might be part-time or temporary.

    There's no set way of going about getting an entry-level job – hunt on job boards for openings, use your contacts or hand out your CV to local businesses. Once you've got your foot in the door it's all about working your way up.

    If you're worried about your exam results, here are the easiest universities to get into.
  6. Work experience or internships

    screenshot of the internship film

    Credit: 20th Century Fox

    Qualifications needed: Varies
    Length: One week to 12 months
    Best for: Those struggling to get an entry-level job, or wanting to try out a role before they commit to a permanent job.

    If you're keen to start working as soon as possible, but you're struggling to find an entry-level role, then some work experience or an internship can be a great way of getting a first step on the career ladder.

    Work experience tends to be more casually organised – your best bet is to contact individual companies to find out what their policy is. These placements tend to only last a couple of weeks and are normally unpaid.

    Internships are more formal schemes, usually with set entry requirements and responsibilities, and as a result, they tend to be more competitive. Many are reserved for university students and graduates, but others are open to school leavers or college students – just make sure to check the T&Cs first.

  7. Gap year

    money in a transparent pot with the words travel on it on top of a map of Europe

    Qualifications needed: None
    Length: One year
    Best for: Those who aren't sure what they want to do in the future, or who want a year out from study or work.

    A gap year is essentially a blank page for you to make of it what you will. They're commonly linked with travelling through South-East Asia, but you could spend the year working and saving up some cash, or completing work experience or internships as mentioned above.

    People often worry that taking a gap year might look bad on their CV, but as long as you do something productive with it, it'll likely have the opposite effect.

    If you do decide to go travelling, an awareness of other cultures, language skills, independence and planning will all impress future employers.

    Volunteering abroad or teaching English as a foreign language are also good options if you're thinking of taking a year out: you'll get to travel and possibly make some money at the same time.

  8. Starting your own business

    person typing on a laptop

    Qualifications needed: None
    Length: Indefinite
    Best for: Those with an entrepreneurial spirit who want to work for themselves.

    If you're the kind of person who prefers to work independently and is full of creative ideas for making money, then setting up your own business could be a fulfilling alternative to university or a full-time job.

    There are so many different routes you can take to set up your own business, and we've spoken to students who've done everything including setting up their own alpaca farm.

    But you don't even need to set up your own business to become self-employed. You could do freelance work, make money on the 'gram, start a blog, become a paid driver or even a dog walker!

    It takes some serious drive and determination to make money this way and it certainly won't happen overnight, but you never know – you could end up a millionaire!

And remember, don't let these common stereotypes about student life influence your decision.


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