Alternatives to university after A levels, Highers or the IB

Paths leading in different directions - alternatives to university
Explore your options at 18+, including higher apprenticeships, degree apprenticeships, graduate apprenticeships, sponsored degrees and school leaver programmes.

Considering alternatives to traditional university study after A levels, Scottish Highers or the International Baccalaureate? If you want to continue your education and gain additional qualifications, debt-free options include:

  • degree apprenticeships
  • higher apprenticeships
  • graduate apprenticeships (Scotland only)
  • school leaver programmes.

All of the above involve combining a proper, paid job with studying part time for a qualification that relates to your career. Your tuition will be paid for by your employer and you’ll be given time off work to attend university or college. You’ll find a range of them available in areas such as IT, engineering, finance, business and retail; many are run by big, sought-after employers.

Sponsored degrees sometimes also allow you to study without running up debt, depending on the nature of the scheme. See below to find out more.

What are degree apprenticeships?

Degree apprenticeships involve gaining a university degree while you work. This is usually a bachelors degree (a level 6 qualification), though in a few cases you will get a masters degree (a level 7 qualification). It’s a great way to get a degree and extensive workplace experience while avoiding university debt, though on the flip side the course will be chosen by the employer and participants will need to balance work and study.

Businesses have worked together with universities and colleges to design degree apprenticeships; the scheme is also backed by the government, which helps employers with the cost. The first degree apprenticeships were offered in England from September 2015. Career areas where degree apprenticeships are currently available include engineering, IT, finance, business/management and construction (eg quantity surveying).

What are higher apprenticeships?

Higher apprenticeships are similar to degree apprenticeships, though the qualifications you work towards are usually a little below bachelors degree level. For example, you might gain a level 4 qualification such as an HNC or an NVQ level 4, or a level 5 qualification such as an HND or foundation degree.

What are graduate apprenticeships?

Graduate apprenticeships are run in Scotland and are similar to degree apprenticeships and higher apprenticeships. They combine paid work with university study and can lead to qualifcations ranging from an HND to a masters degree, depending on the particular programme.

What are sponsored degrees?

There are two types of sponsored degree. One is effectively just a different, older name for a degree apprenticeship – that is, a programme on which an employee will work for their employer, study for a degree part-time and have their tuition fees paid for them.

The other is an arrangement by which an employer provides limited financial support to students who have gone to university in the normal way and are studying a subject that relates to the employer’s business. Typically the student will complete work placements with the employer during university vacations, and may need to work for the sponsor for a minimum period after graduation. This form of sponsored degree is most frequently provided by engineering companies.

What are school leaver programmes?

The term school leaver programme is quite generic. It describes programmes that combine earning and learning – and with tuition fees covered by the employer – but there is no need for the content to fit a particular framework. You might see the term used to describe a scheme that is technically an apprenticeship, or as a catch-all for all earning-and-learning opportunities open to school leavers.

However, in practice it is quite often used by employers in accountancy and related areas who take students after their A levels or equivalent and put them through an extensive programme of work and study designed to qualify them as chartered accountants. These are frequently attractive propositions, as participants tend to end up with the same professional qualifications in accountancy that graduates joining the organisation would work towards – and in some cases at a younger age. Programmes tend to last around five years.

Can I apply for advanced apprenticeships if I have A levels?

You can apply for lower levels of apprenticeship – intermediate apprenticeships and advanced apprenticeships – with A levels. See our article on apprenticeships and their levels to find out more about these. It will mean that there are more vacancies you can apply for – however, you will be studying for qualifications that aren’t any higher than those you already have, and your fellow apprentices may be 16 with no A levels. Make sure you’ll be happy with this before signing up.

Things to keep in mind when researching alternatives to university

While there are plenty of brilliant salaried training schemes for school leavers out there, the process for applying for them is much less standardised and centralised than the system for applying to uni. You’re going to need to research the opportunities carefully and understand that different employers sometimes use key terms in slightly different ways when describing what they have to offer. Our advice on how to choose between work and uni and what to expect when you get there will help you work out the best path for you.

The route into every profession is different. In some cases the options open to non-graduates are relatively limited. For example, an undergraduate degree is a standard requirement for anyone who wants to go on to qualify as a teacher or solicitor. You can find out more from our advice sections on specific careers.

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