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To be or not to be a graduate or apprentice?

by Sellick Partnership | 13 March 2015

With National Apprenticeship Week, our attention is drawn to the benefits of apprenticeships and their increasing popularity with young people, due to a rise in recent funding and exposure. In light of this however, it draws in to question the existing options for school leavers - one of which is of course University. I question what value is left in this route of education in 2015, compared to 2001 when Blair made his famous "Education, Education, Education” speech declaring that his aim was to have "50% of young adults progress to higher education”.  

Looking back upon my personal experience, an apprenticeship was never an option for me. Whether it was parental expectations, my school's encouragement or my own motivators, university was always 'the next step' and therefore was all I gave any serious consideration to. In all honesty it was most likely a combination of the above factors that led me to that conclusion, but I do wonder if the conversation would be different even 4 years down the line, with practical work experience taking a forefront in desirable traits for employers. 

According to the Higher Education Statistics Agency (HESA), between 2013/14 there were 2,299,355 students in university, across post and undergrad studies. This highlights the issue that we currently have the highest number of graduates, on the highest number of courses, from the highest number of universities the UK has ever seen. This mass production technique may well have devalued the purpose of higher education, which is to enable those who make the grade, to continue on into more serious and specific study/research. As with 49.3% of 18 year olds going on to university, far from setting you apart and giving you that winning edge, having a degree these days merely ensures you blend into the crowd! 

I have identified a couple of comparisons that can be drawn in order to assess the 'usefulness' of a degree verses an apprenticeship. These are the costs, the skills gained, and the overall experience of the two different options. 

Money: It has been fairly well documented, but the rise in tuition fees (from £3,000 per annum to £9,000) has made university seem like a distinctly expensive option. Starting out post-university with circa £35,000 of debt - taking into account maintenance loans to cover living cost as well - isn't the easiest of feelings. Not that the money is taken from you straight away, none the less, it is an external pressure on fairly young shoulders. Additionally, people, now more so than ever, are questioning its financial worth: is university good 'value for money'? It's difficult to quantify monetary benefit of a degree to an individual, however more recently people are suggesting we won't see a particularly good return on our investment in terms of salary. This of course is all in comparison to an apprenticeship whereby people are paid to gain practical experience, not paying for it. From this perspective I can only see a bright future for apprenticeships and their growing popularity. 

Skill set: There are many transferable skills from university, especially written and oral communication. Within essay based subjects the focus is usually analytical, you hone these skills throughout the course obviously and are then able to write fluidly. The joy of the apprenticeship is the notion that you are directly learning the skills you require for you apprenticeship. If it is either plumbing or administration (like Alice from our Liverpool office) you are invested in by employers and come out with the knowledge and experience needed to gain a similar role - if a position is not available where you have done your apprenticeship. Apprenticeships are often seen as being useful for vocational courses, however they are becoming more diverse. 

Overall experience: For me, this is the silver lining of university. The value you gain from the overall experience of doing a degree is both intrinsic and intangible, you cannot measure it definitively but it is obvious. University offered an opportunity for me to move out of my home and gain independence, whilst initially still within the protective bubble of university halls. Having previously mentioned the skills gained, most of these at university could be quantified as non-academic - they don't necessarily help you gain that First in an essay or to pass an exam. However, confidence when communicating with a variety of people, being able to cook (however basic), effectively managing your time and even learning about renting a house and paying bills, are all imperative to gaining independence and developing from young person to adult. During university, the social and living element of the 3 years was probably of most importance to me looking back - it gave me the confidence to move, live and work in a new city which led me to my role at Sellick Partnership. 

What is your opinion on the ongoing apprenticeships vs degrees debate? If you had the opportunity would you have chosen an apprenticeship over attending university? I would love to hear your thoughts in the comments below…