What are the alternatives to university?

possibilities signpostTwo key decision-making times for young people are at 16- and 18-years-old, when choices need to be made about their next steps. At 18, for some – including those without clear career goals – the desire to go to university may feel like a natural choice. But with more pathways available into careers these days, there may be options other than university that a young person hasn’t considered and which may suit them better.

Whether a young person has ruled out an option because they think it’s not for them or because they aren’t aware of alternative routes, it may be worth exploring some of these alternatives to university.

Higher or degree apprenticeships

Apprenticeships combine work, training and study allowing you to learn while you earn, gaining new skills, knowledge and experience. There are no student fees as training costs are funded by the Government or the employer and apprentices earn at least the apprenticeship minimum wage, if not more.

There are two types of apprenticeship above an advanced level 3 apprenticeship (equivalent to A levels) – higher and degree apprenticeships – and these can offer training for a top flight career. Taking a degree apprenticeship means that some time is spent at a university, with a chance to graduate, but most of the time is spent in the workplace.

Degree apprenticeships can take longer than degrees and are more of a commitment towards a particular career area so it’s really helpful for anyone considering this route to have a clear idea of their career path before searching for the right apprenticeship.

There’s a very wide range of apprenticeships available although not all will be on offer where you live. The government updates its higher and degree vacancy listing for apprenticeships offered by a range of employers on a regular basis and it’s worth starting to look at this early to see what’s likely to be available when it’s time to start applying.


  • You are employed and get paid
  • No student fees or tuition loans
  • You gain an insight into a sector


  • You are committing to a specific career
  • You cannot choose the university/college/training provider
  • It can take up to 4-6 years to achieve some higher or degree apprenticeships although some are much shorter

Useful websites include Find an apprenticeship and UCAS

Employment or self-employment:

Some young people are keen to move on from education and training into the world of work. Starting a job allows a young person to gain workplace skills and experience and earn a wage while gaining more independence.

The most popular ways to find a job are:

  • Looking for vacancies online – either through a jobs board such as Adzuna or Indeed or on the website of an employer you’re interested in
  • Signing up with a job agency or agencies
  • Posting your CV online
  • Using social media such as LinkedIn

There are minimum wage rates for 18- to 20-year-olds which increase every April; at 21 years old the hourly rate rises.

There are many organisations that can help young people thinking about setting up a business including The Prince’s Trust and Shell Livewire.


  • You get paid
  • You gain skills and experience in the workplace
  • Good for networking
  • You may be able to gain promotion quickly
  • If self-employed, you have control over what you do


  • Job hunting can be difficult
  • Competition can be high for some roles
  • It may be hard to gain promotion in your role
  • Self-employment can be precarious


Internships are offered by companies for limited periods of time and are essentially paid work experience in a particular industry or job – they can be as short as a week or last up to a year. Internship programmes can be helpful for giving insight into a sector before deciding to study for a degree and they can be useful for building up skills and experience so sought after by employers. You can either shadow a professional or work for a company.


  • You will understand what a particular role is like and gain valuable, real life work experience
  • Good for networking
  • Helps you become more self-confident
  • Get paid while gaining experience


  • Competition can be high
  • You may be treated as an assistant

If you’re considering an internship, think about what you want to get out of it and check the terms to make sure it’s the right position for you.

Gaining a degree without actually going to university

Aside from a degree apprenticeship, there are other ways to gain a degree without actually going to university. Some further education (FE) colleges now offer university-level courses which are overseen by a university but delivered at college. Some offer just foundation degrees and others offer full degrees – check with your preferred colleges to see what’s on offer.

Some students decide that working part time while studying for an Open University or degree through distance learning suits their circumstances better.


  • It may possible to work part time while studying
  • You may prefer to do one module at a time, taking it slowly
  • It may fit in better with personal commitments


  • It’s not the same social experience as going to university
  • You need to be self-motivated

Studying for a degree at university doesn’t suit everyone but there are alternative options. The route you choose should be the one that suits you best according to your interests, strengths and your long-term plans.

About the author

An associate careers adviser with Ideas4Careers (UK) Ltd, Neil has nearly 25 years’ experience working in the education sector. Before becoming an independent careers adviser in 2015, he was employed as a careers adviser for four years, progressing into careers management for 19 years. He is a Registered Career Development Practitioner.

Neil has worked in a variety of roles and departments including universities, schools, colleges, in-custody and community venues and enjoys advising people from a wide range of backgrounds and age range, helping them to achieve their academic and vocational aspirations.