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11 Fantastic Alternatives to University

11 Fantastic Alternatives to University

In a world where the path to success seems to be paved through the halls of academia, the decision to go to university often feels like an obligatory next step after college. But is it the only way forward? With increasing tuition fees, potential student loan debt, and a changing job landscape, many individuals are questioning whether a university degree is a must-have or merely one option among many.

For some professions, obtaining a degree is non-negotiable, while in others, hands-on experience, apprenticeships, or self-employment may offer equally promising paths. As you stand at this critical crossroads, this comprehensive article aims to guide you through the various considerations that can help you make the best decision for your unique situation.

Do you have to go to university?

Many people go on to have successful careers without a degree - and without the burden of student loans!

This article will help you determine whether university is the right path for you, or whether there is a worthy alternative to university that can help you achieve your dreams.

5 reasons you should go to university

There are many positives of going to university. Here we will talk you through five key reasons to get a degree:

  • University teaches you much more than the subject you are studying. Students often come away from university with stronger problem-solving skills, resilience, emotional intelligence, as well as a whole host of other skills.

  • Students get a taste of independence whilst at uni. This can be from learning how to budget money and cook, how to be responsible and manage your own schedule, and helping your confidence grow.

  • A degree can be a crucial step towards your chosen career. After all, how many doctors, lawyers, or teachers do you know without a degree?

  • A degree can set you apart from your peers. When it comes to applying for jobs, a degree, even when not in a relevant subject, shows your commitment and determination, and can make your CV stand out.

  • Having a degree opens up the door to graduate schemes. This means that you get to start a career at a higher level than without a degree, meaning your earning potential is higher. It can also put you on a great path of learning and development, with opportunities for fast progression.

5 reasons you shouldn't go to university

University isn’t for everyone. Here are a few of the top reasons that students choose not to continue their education at university:

  • There is a more sensible route to your chosen career. For example if you want to be a beautician, estate agent, or electrician, an apprenticeship may make more sense than a degree.

  • You have had enough of exams and studying. After over a decade of exams, coursework, and classrooms, it’s understandable that you might feel burnt out and ready for something new. There is nothing wrong with wanting to try something different rather than committing to another three years of intense study and assessments.

  • The cost is putting you off. University isn’t cheap. You may be signing up for tens of thousands of pounds in student loans, and depending on your circumstances, it may be tough to survive financially during three years of university.

  • You have no idea what you want to do with your life. If you still haven’t chosen a career path, doing a degree for the sake of doing a degree can be unwise. There is nothing stopping you from undertaking a degree further down the line when you have outlined your goals.

  • There’s a shortage of graduate positions. With more and more people choosing to go to university each year, there is becoming a shortage of graduate jobs. This means that some graduates have no option but to take entry-level positions, which they could have secured without a degree.

How much does university cost?

One of the biggest factors that can deter a student from university is the cost. So how much does university actually cost? Let’s break it down:

In 2023, the costs associated with attending university in the United Kingdom continue to be a significant concern for students. Average undergraduate tuition fees for home students in England are currently capped at £9,250 per year, though many institutions charge this as a standard rate. For international students, this can rise significantly, with some universities charging up to £38,000 per year.

The maximum tuition fee loan available from Student Finance England is equal to the full tuition fee charged by the university. Maintenance loans, intended to cover living costs, are up to £12,010 for students living away from home and studying in London, and up to £9,203 for those studying outside London. The total debt upon graduation can be substantial, with the Institute for Fiscal Studies estimating that the average student in England will accrue debt exceeding £50,000 by the end of their course. However, the exact amount of debt can be significantly influenced by factors such as the choice of university, course length, and living expenses.

Young woman eating noodles at desk with her laptop

University is a huge financial commitment, which is why a gap year might be a great way to help you feel certain about your decision.

Is a gap year a good idea?

Taking a year out before uni can be a great move. It can help you figure out whether university is definitely the right path for you. Gap years are a great way to reset - you can even take a gap year during university.

What is a gap year?

A gap year is a year out from study. You can take a year out directly after college and use it to work and save up some cash, travel, or simply spend your time figuring out your next move. Gap years are actually quite common, which means many students start university a year later, so don’t let this put you off.

You may experience many benefits from a gap year. It could give you time to determine the career path you want to pursue, or you could even find an entry-level job with great progress prospects which may mean you don’t need to consider university at all.

What are the alternatives to university?

If you’ve already decided that university isn’t the right step for you, or you’re still on the fence, then you’ve come to the right place. We’ve put together a huge list of alternatives to university to give you some inspiration.


While self-employment may not be feasible for most college leavers, it can be a worthy end goal to aspire to. Self-employed individuals can set their own schedule, be their own boss, and the earning potential can be unlimited.

The route to self-employment often needs to start with relevant industry experience, whether that be an apprenticeship or accepting an entry-level position. A degree isn’t a necessity to becoming self-employed, so you just need to focus on getting as much experience in your chosen field as you can, whilst researching the practicality of opening up your own business or becoming a sole trader.

Studying overseas

Going to university and committing to another three years of education might not be appealing to many students, however doing it in France, Australia, or the US might be enough to tempt some students.

Studying overseas means you will still be able to obtain a degree, but you will also achieve so much more. It could be a once in a lifetime experience for many people, and having the guts to venture alone to another country to study can make you stand out to employers.

If you want to learn more about studying overseas, we would recommend checking out UCAS’s studying abroad page.

Take an online class

If your financial situation means that you have no choice but to go straight into employment from college, you may be able to learn around your job.

You can learn lots of professions online, such as graphic design, coding, or marketing. This can be done part-time, and once you build up a portfolio, you will be able to start applying for jobs in your chosen field.

Colin Tan, Tech Editor at Increditools, told us his experience of entering the world of tech without a degree:

““Since the pandemic, more and more high school leavers are opting not for university, but for alternatives like specialised training courses or hands-on job experiences. The tech industry in particular is almost as welcoming to people entering the field as it is to those who come into it with a college degree. In fact, for many IT positions, a degree is not even part of the job description.

Managers are hiring people who can get the job done. So, if a candidate comes in to apply, and they have gone to a coding boot camp every summer, they are likely to get a job as a software engineer, analyst, or programmer without a degree. And, without the debt of student loans. Some of these kinds of jobs pay over 6 figures. It’s making a lot of students reconsider their paths after college and many are diverging from it altogether, opting instead for a certification program in the field they want to work in.

It’s definitely something for kids and parents to be thinking about, especially at least a couple of summers before they finish high school. If their child wants to go into the tech industry, they should definitely consider the alternatives to a degree.”

Young woman learning from a laptop on a sofa

A great way to learn a new skill is with the help of a tutor. They may also be able to give you help and advice on how to break into the industry you’re passionate about.

Apprenticeships are a great alternative to university

There are so many different types of apprenticeships, suited to all kinds of learners. The best part is that you can often earn whilst you learn, and they’re much less classroom and exam focused than a degree. The five main types of apprenticeship are as follows:

Traditional apprenticeship

Degree apprenticeship

Foundation degree

Higher apprenticeship


What is a traditional apprenticeship?

Apprenticeships can be fantastic alternatives to traditional higher education routes. For starters, you earn while you learn. No massive tuition fees, no student debt - just pure, practical experience with a paycheck at the end of the month.

Plus, you're guaranteed to learn the ropes in a real-world, hands-on environment which is a huge deal. This direct industry exposure can be super beneficial when it comes to snagging a job after your apprenticeship ends. Also, you've got a vast range of choices! From construction to IT, to marketing - you name it, there's probably an apprenticeship for it.

On the flip side, there are a few potential downsides to consider. For one, an apprenticeship may not carry the same prestige or recognition as a university degree, especially when applying for jobs in certain sectors or roles.

In some industries, having a degree is still considered the "gold standard" of education. Additionally, university life offers a unique social experience that you might miss out on with an apprenticeship. Think freshers' week, joining societies, and bonding with peers in your field. Lastly, depending on the field, the starting salary for an apprentice might be quite a bit lower than a graduate's. So, it's not all roses, but it can still be a brilliant path for those who prefer a more hands-on approach to learning and starting their career.

What is a degree apprenticeship?

A degree apprenticeship is a type of vocational program that combines on-the-job training with academic study at university level. It offers individuals the opportunity to earn a recognised degree while gaining valuable work experience in a specific industry or profession. In a degree apprenticeship, students are employed by a company from the outset and receive a salary, allowing them to earn money while learning.

The apprentices split their time between the workplace and the educational institution, where they attend classes related to their field of study. This practical approach to learning equips apprentices with real-world skills and knowledge, making them highly desirable candidates for future employment. Degree apprenticeships have gained popularity as an alternative to traditional university education, as they provide a direct pathway to a career, eliminate student loan debts, and foster a strong connection between academia and industry.

What is a foundation degree?

A foundation degree is a higher education qualification offered in the United Kingdom that lies between the level of a diploma and an undergraduate degree. It is designed to provide students with practical skills and knowledge relevant to a particular industry or profession.

Foundation degrees typically span two years of full-time study and are often offered in partnership with universities, colleges, and employers. The curriculum includes a blend of academic coursework and practical training, allowing students to gain hands-on experience and a deep understanding of their chosen field.

Upon completion, students may choose to enter the workforce directly or use the foundation degree as a stepping stone to pursue further studies and top-up their qualification to a full bachelor's degree. Foundation degrees cater to a wide range of career paths and are valued for their focus on employability, making them an attractive option for individuals seeking a more direct route to career opportunities.

What is a higher apprenticeship?

A higher apprenticeship goes beyond the scope of traditional apprenticeships by providing a more extensive and in-depth learning experience. Higher apprenticeships typically target individuals who have completed their A-levels or equivalent qualifications, offering them the chance to earn while they learn at a higher education level.

These apprenticeships combine on-the-job training with academic study, enabling participants to develop specialised skills and knowledge relevant to their chosen profession. The programs are structured to meet the demands of specific industries, including sectors like engineering, healthcare, finance, and technology. Higher apprenticeships often lead to the achievement of a Level 4 or higher qualification, such as a Higher National Diploma (HND) or a foundation degree, providing apprentices with solid credentials and improved career prospects.

By offering a viable alternative to traditional university education, higher apprenticeships bridge the gap between learning and the workplace, equipping individuals with both practical expertise and academic qualifications to excel in their chosen fields.

What is a traineeship?

A traineeship is a structured and focused learning program designed to provide young individuals with the skills, knowledge, and work experience needed to transition into employment or further education.

Traineeships are typically aimed at individuals aged 16 to 24 years who may lack the necessary qualifications or experience to secure a job or pursue higher education. These programs are offered by employers in collaboration with education and training providers, and they usually last from 6 weeks to 6 months.

During a traineeship, participants receive practical on-the-job training, gain insights into specific industries, and develop essential employability skills. Traineeships can cover a wide range of sectors, including hospitality, retail, administration, and more.

The primary goal of a traineeship is to prepare young individuals for the workforce by boosting their confidence, employability, and overall readiness for the job market. It serves as a stepping stone towards future employment or further study opportunities, helping participants bridge the gap between education and work while setting a solid foundation for their future careers.

Consider applying for entry-level jobs

Instead of going to university, you could just go out and get an entry-level job. Plenty of successful people started at the bottom and worked their way up. You might need to try out a few positions in a few different industries before you find a job you’re passionate about.

If further down the line you decide to pursue a new qualification, at least you will have bagged yourself some good work experience and possibly even saved up some money.

Find somewhere to volunteer

Volunteering in an industry you’re passionate about is a good way to get experience - as well as feel great about yourself! If your dream is to become a vet, consider volunteering at a shelter, if you’re set on working in childcare, volunteer at a kid’s club.

We spoke to Ashlee Osborn, who went down this route. She told us:

“I started gaining experience in the industry while I was still in secondary school, volunteering at my local animal shelter and getting an entry-level job as a playgroup supervisor at a dog daycare facility.”

Ashlee is now a professional dog trainer and owner of her own training school, Pawsitive Pups Academy.

When you’re volunteering in a field you enjoy, it doesn’t feel like work, and the benefits are endless.

Work as a freelancer

If you have a talent for a particular skill, you can turn it into a paying job. This could be anything from social media to graphic design. As long as you build up a good portfolio and can convince clients that you’re worth the price, you aren’t always expected to have formal qualifications in these areas.

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Kirstan N

Kirstan N

9th Aug 2023