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"University debt doesn't seem to have reduced demand for university places. But are the Higher Apprenticeships going to give degrees a run for their money?
Let's have a look at which is best........."
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Introduction

Only someone not from the UK (or perhaps a hermit) wouldn't be aware that tuition fees for studying at university in England is now at a maximum of £9000 per year. In theory it could be lower, but few Higher Education Institutions (HEs) dare charge less for reasons I won't go into today. And although the prospect of £27000 debt plus further costs for living expenses such as halls of residence and food (and beer) could push this to £40,000 plus, this hasn't put young people off the idea of spending 3 or 4 years at one of our hallowed institutions of Higher Institutions.

That's all well and good - but there is a growing chorus of voices wondering whether university is actually worth it in the first place? There are many issues that are creating this doubt. For a start there are mumblings about the amount of tutor time that students are getting for their money. Some are arguing that graduate salaries no longer make the 3 year sacrifice work the effort. Some are worried about whether their degree will be recognised by employers, if they went to the right university and of course there is the issue of debts. After all, many employers will train graduates in the way they want them to work anyway, so why do degree in the first place? Would an apprenticeship not be better?

so what are the issues?
Lets take a look at some of these issues. The point concerning tutorial problems has been well documented - but a reason not to go to university? Probably not. What about the issue of university recognition? If you can't get into a good university is it worth going at all? This is a bit more complicated. Many graduates who don't end up at a Russell Group university still do very well. For example there are many professions that recognise degrees from non Russell group institutions e.g. Town Planning at Oxford Brooks or Law at Nottingham Trent. Put simply Russell group isn't the only way to go!

Introducing Higher Apprenticeships

But the issue of whether a degree is needed at all is a bit more complex.
First of all what other alternatives are there? Of course you can simply don't go and end up working wherever, or you can work your way up the greasy pole and join a management programme and end up running the company that way. Today apprenticeships can refer to anything from a conventional hairdressing course to a high tech course in jet engine production with Rolls Royce.

But now there is a new scheme that has been backed by a £25 million fund from the government. Called the Higher Apprenticeship not only traditional types of employers such as Rolls Royce are taking part, but also new types of employers such as IBM, Deloitte and PwC. In fact 13,000 young people joined the scheme in 2013, this number doubling from when the scheme started in 2011.

Young people join the scheme once they have completed their A levels rather than straight from school after GCSEs. It needs to be said that these apprentices still aim for the 'top', the same type of roles they would they would have aimed for if they had gone to university. Higher Apprenticeships are vying to be seen as every bit as good as a degree - but via a different route.

These schemes are offered at 4 different levels. Level 4 is the equivalent to a Certificate of Higher Education, while level 5 is similar to the Diploma of Higher education. Level 6 and 7 equate to an undergraduate degree and Masters level study respectively. Lasting anything from 3 years to 6 years, these schemes are increasing in numbers - a good result for the present government desperate to improve skills in the workplace in the UK.

So what's best?
So what is the best thing to do? Go to university or stay at home and join a Higher Apprenticeship scheme? Or is it really as simple as that? For example are we really sure that someone who starts off with a HA will truly end up in the same place as someone who gains a good class of undergraduate degree at university. In other words are they really like for like?

Apprenticeships

So what do you get from each option. With HA's you get work experience, work experience and even more work experience. There is no question this is one of the greatest benefits of apprenticeship - the ability to learn while on the job. And this answers one of the biggest gripes of employers - the lack of employment skills.

You've probably heard the argument that many employers have stated that today's graduates and school leavers lack work readiness. You can see how HA's would be popular with employers keen to be able to train young people in how they want them to be in their company or organisation. Getting experience on the job goes a long way to alleviating this problem.

But there are other advantages of apprenticeships other than just providing high level work experience, such as securing a steady income while your graduate peers struggle for beer money, and of course the question of debt created by having to take out student loans! Or in this case avoiding it. Have apprenticeships stolen the march on university level study? And oh yes, I should mention, the vast majority of apprentices are kept on once their training is complete.

University

So what do you get for three years at university (apart from loads of debt)? Well there's no doubt that there are certain skills that simply can't be replicated by work experience as part of an apprenticeship. Critical thinking and analytical skills are just two attributes that graduates develop from studying at this level that they also use when entering the workplace. This is why certain degrees such as Literature and History are excellent degrees for roles in the financial markets, as analysing lots of data and being able to critique the results are extremely useful skills in this area of work. Research skills and independent thinking and the ability to understand and appreciate theory are all further skills and attributes that graduates develop as part of their study while at university.

But there are some other obvious reasons why going off to university is the ONLY way to go. For example for many careers and professions a degree is a must if one is to enter a particular profession. For example Medicine, Architecture, Town Planning and today even Nursing all require a degree as a must. Apprenticeships, even at a higher level, will simply not be able to match this anytime soon. And for jobs that don't require a degree per se, many employers will still insist on graduates with the skills mentioned above.

And of course theres the social aspect of going away. I wont dwell on this difference too much as I'm sure its fairly obvious what these benefits are. But it needs to be said that many people make friends for life when they go away to university - as well as professional colleagues of the future.

So who wins?
To me it's obvious - although apprenticeships have their place, especially the HA's as I think they fill a massive need for higher level skills in this country, I think that there are still talents and competencies that, at the moment, only the study of a degree can provide. Ultimately I think which one is chosen, degree or apprenticeship, will depend on what type of career an individual wants as certain roles and opportunities will require the experiences and knowledge that only a degree can provide.

I guess we'll just have to see what happens in the future.
But it would be interesting to compare 100 graduates and HA's apprentices from age 18 to 40 to see where they end up don't you think? Leo Edwald - The Directory of the Professions

Article - University v Higher Apprenticeships