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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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You won't be alone in wondering whether university is worth it.

Although we could go around 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?

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, as 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

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Credit: ABO PHOTOGRAPHY - Shutterstock

If you're still on the fence about whether university is worth it, we've listed some reasons to go to university and how going to uni can help you in the future.

5 reasons to go to university

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 – You can develop in areas 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 not to go to university

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 – It might not be as bad as you think, though, as we explain in our guide about Student Finance myths
  5. A degree alone might not be enough to get a graduate job – 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?

The rising cost of university education is often in the news, so you'd be forgiven for thinking that you simply can't afford to go to university. After all, 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 latest National Student Money Survey has found the Maintenance Loan doesn't stretch far enough – leaving a £582 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. For example, 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 all of it back. Our guide to repaying your Student Loan goes into this in much more detail.

Try not to focus too much on the debt, but instead think about what you'll gain from a degree in the long run.

For an even more detailed breakdown of how much it will cost you to study across the UK, check out our guide on how much university costs.

And, if you do decide that university isn't for you, don't panic. There are plenty more options out there. See the list below for some alternative ideas.

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

8 alternatives to university

Here are some of the common university alternatives:

  1. Degree apprenticeships

    woman 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 – Around three to six years
    • Best for – Those who want a degree, while also gaining workplace skills, earning a salary and graduating without student 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 80% of the time and studying at university for the remaining 20%. You might be able to get extra time off from work around exams to revise.

    You'll graduate with a full university bachelor's degree (Level 6). It's 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 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 vocational subjects like ones related to engineering, healthcare and policing.

    At the moment, degree apprenticeships are only available at universities in England and Wales, although applications may be made from all parts of the UK.

    In Scotland, you can look at doing a graduate apprenticeship, which is essentially the same as a degree apprenticeship. Northern Ireland's equivalent is the higher level apprenticeship (HLA).

    Unlike typical undergraduate uni courses, you apply directly through the relevant employer, rather than UCAS. However, UCAS does have a search tool that helps you find degree apprenticeships. You can also search on the official government website.

    Find out more in our full guide to degree apprenticeships.

  2. Foundation degrees

    • 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.

    Similar to an apprenticeship, it's a qualification designed to prepare you for a specific area of work by combining academic study and work experience. 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. You'll also be eligible for the same Student Finance support.

    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 foundation year is 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 you're not sure what degree to do.
  3. Higher apprenticeships

    man welding

    • Qualifications needed – Potentially two+ GCSEs with grades 9–4, 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 master's level.

    You'll be working full-time (and getting paid a wage) to gain the practical skills needed for the role. But you'll also be 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.

    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

    • 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 work or 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 might get travel and food expenses reimbursed.

    While gaining workplace skills and securing valuable work experience, you'll also get Maths, English and digital support if needed to boost your job prospects and earning potential.

    Use the official government website to find traineeships near you.

  5. Entry-level jobs

    two baristas

    • 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, but 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. You can start by searching job boards for openings, using your contacts or handing 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

    • 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, work experience or an internship can be great ways to get a first step on the career ladder.

    Work experience tends to be more casually organised. It's best 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. They usually have set entry requirements and responsibilities. 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. Make sure to check the T&Cs first!

  7. Gap year

    money in a transparent pot with the word 'travel' on a map

    • Qualifications needed – None
    • Length – Usually 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 there are other ways to fill your gap year. You could spend it 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 that's not necessarily the case. If 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. When added in the right way, travelling can look great on your CV!

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

  8. Starting your own business

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

    If you prefer to work independently and you're full of creative ideas for your own business, then entrepreneurship 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.

    We've spoken to students who have gone on lots of entrepreneurial adventures, including setting up their own alpaca farm!

    But you don't even need to set up your own business to become self-employed. Here are some other ideas:

    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 the common stereotypes about student life influence your decision.

Jessica Murray

WRITTEN BY Jessica Murray

As an Editor of Save the Student, Jessica Murray has written extensively on student money news and money-saving tips. She was co-host of our podcast, No More Beans, and is now a journalist at the Guardian. Her tips and insights range from fun guides for freshers, to information for graduates entering the workplace.
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