Degree vs apprenticeship? Your options weighed up

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Jeremy Clarkson may have been suspended from Top Gear, but it doesn’t mean that no-one’s doing road tests this week. Here’s your AAT guide to the great degree vs apprenticeship conundrum…

Apprenticeships have been seen as a route only into a narrow range of mainly manual jobs – motor repair, shop floor manufacturing, hairdressing, that kind of thing. National Apprenticeship Week has shown how much things have changed.

Today, an apprenticeship offers a viable path towards a successful career in, say, accountancy by providing academic knowledge and real-life experience. Apprenticeships mean you can attain the same qualifications – without the degree – by starting on-the-job training from day one.

So, university or apprenticeship? Let’s take a look…

Arguments for university

1. Time to decide your future

Many young people interested in accounting will typically spend three years at university, followed by on-the-job training, followed by professional qualifications.

And for good reason. Just as university is not for everyone, neither are apprenticeships. If you don’t have a clear idea of which career you want to enter, studying a traditional subject at university can help you to keep your career options open while gaining a qualification.

2. University life

There is also the issue of university life. Yes, there’s the social side, and uni also lets you experience full-time academic study for three years.

3. Degrees are still valued

While views are changing, there’s still a sense that attending university helps get you ahead. In a recent poll, 56% of recent graduates felt that the biggest benefit of doing a degree was being “more qualified” than others when applying for a job.

Other reasons given by uni graduates as being the top option for attending university are:

  • Making lifelong friends – 52%
  • Moving to/travelling to different places – 38%
  • Having the theoretical knowledge of the sector – 32%

Clearly these are all valid reasons, but studying at university might not be right for everyone…

Arguments for apprenticeships

1. The qualifications are just as good

Skills minister Nick Boles advocates that apprenticeships should be considered a clear alternative to university.

“I would like to get to a place where there’s a choice between two routes, both of which could take you as far as you want to go – one of which is a full-time university degree, the other is an apprenticeship,” he said.

Take the AAT Higher/Technical Apprenticeship in Accounting  for example – graduates are qualified to undertake a wide range of accountancy, financial and taxation tasks and have the opportunity to progress to chartered status, just like university graduates.

2. You’ll earn more

There are strong financial reasons to consider apprenticeships, too. Research by the Centre for Economics and Business Research (CEBR) shows that those who progress on to study a higher apprenticeship will increase earnings by an estimated £150,000 over a lifetime – with the bonus of no university debt.

You also earn a living while learning on the job. According to the National Apprenticeship Service, average pay rates for apprentices are around £170 per week.

And research shows that the average university graduate has a starting salary of £14,734 while those who complete an apprenticeship on average have a starting salary of £18,463.

“We’re not surprised at all that apprentices earn more within their first jobs than graduates, purely because they get the hands-on experience while they’re learning,” explains Spencer Mehlman, of

“Their first job is typically within the company that they’ve trained with. Therefore they know everything already in terms of rules, what the company likes and dislikes and they have the experience with the customers and clients already.”

3. It’s real experience

Real-world experience is key, especially in accounting. A theoretical knowledge of accounting is not worth very much – what counts is how you can apply it to clients. Therefore, by having several years of experience under your belt by the time you finish you apprenticeship, you’re a step ahead of those who have only studied accounting in books.

In the end, it’s up to you. Take the question seriously, think through the pros and cons, then apply yourself with vigour. We wish you luck!

Ben Walker is the former editor of Accounting Technician.

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