There are many reasons to attend university. You can earn an advanced degree that will let you enter highly desirable professions—and the wide range of courses allow you to explore your interests with flexibility. You may form connections with your instructors and your fellow students that can lead to social and professional advancement. Living away from home lets you enjoy the independence of setting your own rules and taking care of your own household. Holders of advanced degrees often earn a higher salary than their non-university peers, and a degree can be applied towards a variety of fields.

Plus, frankly, progressing from GCSEs to A-Levels to university is what many parents expect of their children. Parents may fear that their child will not succeed to their full potential unless they walk the expected path through a bachelor’s or master’s degree, maybe even a doctorate. Yet, even so, some people faced with the choice of whether or not to go to university still find themselves feeling as though they’d rather not.

Contents

The drawbacks of higher education

Alternatives to university

The drawbacks of higher education

Students face pressure from peers, parents and school advisors to aspire to university admission. Nearly 52% of UK residents from 17 to 30 years old enrolled in higher education for the first time in 2018/2019, according to the government statistics—the highest proportion of the population ever. The statistics measure the likelihood that someone who is 17 years old today will enroll in higher education by the time they are 30, if the latest year's entry rates stay steady in the future.

But if 52% of young people attend university, that means 48% are seeking out an alternative. Part of that is down to economics—with UK tuition fees higher than anywhere else in the world, a lot of families may not be able to afford university, even with assistance.

And what about people who entered university but dropped out? Don’t forget those who earned their degree but regret spending the money and time, either because they’re struggling to pay off their debt or because they realised they did not want to work in their field of study. Both sets of former university students might need to re-skill in order to join a field they find more fulfilling.

Alternatives to university

Say that, for any combination of reasons, you decide you don’t want to continue your formal education. What are your alternatives?

Well, for one thing, you could apply for jobs directly. The downside is that, if you are under 18 in England, you are still required to attend some kind of classes or training part time, and you must work or volunteer at least 20 hours a week.

People between 16 and 24 who don’t have work experience can apply for a traineeship, an unpaid placement of 70 hours over the course of about six months. Trainees receive vocational training on the job, and employers provide guidance and support, as well as feedback in the exit interview.

If you are aged 16 to 18, you could work on your T-Levels, a new UK government programme that combines 80% classroom learning and vocational training with 20% direct unpaid placement with an employer. You will earn the equivalent of three A-Levels after you put in 315 hours with the employer and meet all the requirements set out.

Finally, you can apply to an apprenticeship. There you will spend 80% of your time working for a company and 20% in formal vocational education or training. The big difference? Apprenticeships are paid work. But all of these working alternatives allow you to start your career right away and make business contacts that can really help you down the line.

One clear benefit of an apprenticeship is that it’s paid. You are earning while you are learning. A report from Barclays and the Centre for Economics and Business Research suggests that this “double dipping” might be partly why apprentices are closing the lifetime earnings premium gap with university graduates.

In an apprenticeship, you’re a real employee, with an employment contract and paid holiday leave. At the end of your apprenticeship, you will prove you have learned the skills and acquired the knowledge you need by passing an end-point assessment. That will show future employers that you are qualified for the career you’re pursuing—and earn you academic qualifications as well. You can even finish a university-level degree while getting paid for it instead of taking on debt, and start your professional life earlier.

Depending on the qualifications you have already earned and the level of apprenticeship you choose, it takes 1-6 years to complete an apprenticeship. Your position is funded by contributions from your employer and from the government.

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