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Uni or an apprenticeship? The cost of choice.

For many students considering the choice between going to university or getting an apprenticeship, the financial costs initially seem very clear - the average student graduates from a three-year university course with over £50,000 of debt whilst an apprenticeship will typically pay over £35,000 in salary over the same period for an 18-year-old, working 40 hours a week. That’s a gap, or rather a hard choice of £85,000, a huge sum by any standards.

If the apprenticeship is in an employment shortage field, such as cyber security, then apprentices with private employers can expect to earn between £60,000 - £90,000 over a 3- year period. Taking an average figure of earning £75,000 over 3 years as a cyber security apprentice or raising over £50,000 of debt as a computer science graduate, it would seem that the £125,000 gap would persuade all but the most devoted computer geeks to apply for an apprenticeship.

The recent experiences for many university students have hardly produced a winning argument for taking the graduate route either.

The industrial action by 43,000 university staff which began in 2018 over pensions and working conditions has seen millions of teaching hours being lost. Although universities have paid out £3 million in compensation to students for lost lessons, most universities have not made any cash payments to students still required to pay up to £9,250 a year in tuition fees. The national lockdown in March forced lessons to be held online with varying levels of success and many students found themselves paying for university accommodation they had to leave.

With news reports of university students presently being quarantined on campus and uncertainty over whether university students will be allowed home over Christmas, surely the prospect of studying for a degree has lost all it allure when an apprenticeship offers so many more benefits; no fees, an income, on the job training, relevant experience and the freedom of movement!

Ah, but if only life’s choices were that simple. There are still many valid reasons for wanting to pursue a university degree.

Consider the scenario described earlier of the computer scientist completing a degree with large student debts. Martin Lewis, the TV and radio presenter and founder of the Money Saving Expert website starts his student loans mythbusting article with the statement “Ignore newspaper headlines about students leaving university with £50,000 of debt. That's mostly a meaningless figure. What counts is how much you'll repay. For some that's far more, for others it's free.” His article explains why students and parents shouldn’t be worried about the cost of student loans, as they aren’t repaid until a high income is being earned and low earners will pay back little, if any, of their loans.

Although some cynics report that degrees have been overvalued and many graduates describe the difficulties in trying to gain employment in sectors that reflect their field of study, there are still a swathe of degrees that greatly enhance a graduate’s employability over a non-graduate.

Patrick, an “ex-spy” who now works within GCHQ, the government’s intelligence and security organisation, addressed a cyber security conference and described GCHQ’s difficulties in recruiting computing graduates. He reported that less than a decade ago, GCHQ could recruit high quality graduates by offering starting salaries in excess of £42,000, not a bad sum for a 21-year-old, leaving university with no prior employment. However, with banks and financial institutions now offering starting salaries of over £60,000 for cyber security graduates, GCHQ cannot compete and are facing a staffing shortage at a time when cyber security is a pressing need for the country. Graduates in mathematics, economics, the physical sciences, medicine and many other disciplines still find their degrees open the doors to employment and research opportunities that are closed to non-graduates.

However, not all students have or enjoy the academic discipline required to complete a degree. One of my ex-students who had an interest in computing but had quite limited academic ability managed to secure an IT apprenticeship with a local employer and within a few years found himself working in Brussels for Nato’s cyber security division. He now partners a successful cyber consultancy in central Bristol and is a passionate supporter of apprenticeships and the mix of employment and training they offer.

Another ex-student who had the academic ability to take A-levels and proceed to university decided to take a car maintenance apprenticeship as he wanted to have a break from a classroom environment. His apprenticeship providers recognised his ability to grasp concepts quickly and through their training and guidance, helped him secure an engineering post with McLaren’s Formula 1 Racing Team in Woking. He has no doubt that his apprenticeship was key to landing his dream post and believes his college placements were made all the more enjoyable because they had an obvious link to his hands-on training.

So if the question is “Should I go to university or take an apprenticeship?” then your answer should take into account that a university degree offers more open ended training and transferable skills whereas an apprenticeship’s training is more narrowly focused but offers an income and no fees. As Emma Knowles, the editor of Prospects suggests “It's a tough choice to make and one option isn't necessarily better than the other. Take a look at your current situation - consider what qualifications you already hold, what you'd like to study, your finances and what you'd like to do in the future. Do some research and choose the best option for you.”

I would suggest Prospects’ website is a good place to start your research (, as they supply free careers advice to students considering studying for a degree and their skills and personality profiler may suggest careers opportunities you’ve never considered (or even heard of). If you are considering an apprenticeship then the government’s site ( is another good source of information and has a useful search facility to find apprenticeships locally.

Why not strengthen your options by having a free consultation with Tutor Doctor (Bristol West) to see how we can help you to gain the qualifications for the career or education route of your choice - click here for further information.