Alternatives to university

Daniel Higginbotham, Editor
June, 2019

If the prospect of student debt and full-time study doesn't sound appealing, you've many options when it comes to deciding what to do instead

As you consider what to do after your A-levels, it's worth noting that some employers offer training programmes aimed at school and college leavers. The terms used to advertise these programmes are often interchangeable, so be sure to check with the company to find out what they're offering and what they'll be expecting from you in return.

No matter what the programme is called, you'll find numerous benefits that make them excellent alternatives to university. 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). These qualifications are available across more than 1,500 roles, in subjects ranging from accounting and banking, to engineering and manufacturing, 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, which is the equivalent of a foundation degree, you'll need a minimum of five GCSEs at grades A*-C (or 9-4 on the new grading system) and Level 3 qualifications such as A-levels, an advanced level diploma, an NVQ Level 3 or an advanced apprenticeship.

The exact entry requirements 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 (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 £3.90 per hour - although wages can be as much as £300 per week.

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.

Entry-level job

These jobs don't require applicants to hold a relevant professional qualification and are therefore available to school or 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 do 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.

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' sponsored degree apprenticeship programmes in manufacturing, corporate, logistics and retail are in partnership with the University of Bradford and Sheffield Hallam University.

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 colleges working in partnership. If courses are studied full time, they usually last two years. Part-time programmes take three or 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 three 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 your HND, what next?


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. 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 advice on how to start a business.

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