Alternatives to University after Sixth Form

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. Career areas where degree apprenticeships are 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, Highers 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.


Five ‘graduate’ careers you can get into via an apprenticeship

Don’t say yes to that uni offer until you’ve read this! TARGETcareers rounds up five prestigious careers you might assume you couldn’t get via an apprenticeship.

Apprenticeships can offer a route into all sorts of jobs, including some that you’d typically associate with graduates. In some cases your apprenticeship will include studying for a university degree, and all apprenticeships combine working in a paid job with having time off for study (at least 20% of your working week). Your employer will pay your tuition fees for you.

1. Solicitor

Solicitors give legal advice to their clients, write legal documents on clients’ behalf and sometimes represent clients by speaking in court. They are one of the two main branches of the legal profession, the other being barristers, who specialise in representing clients in court and in providing very specialist legal advice. Currently you can become a solicitor via an apprenticeship but you need to go to university in the traditional way to become a barrister.

Solicitor apprenticeships last around six years and include getting both a law degree and the postgraduate legal qualification you need to work as a solicitor (currently the LPC, though this is due to change). You’ll be employed by and work for a solicitors’ firm while you train. To get onto a solicitor apprenticeship you’ll need A levels or equivalent – employers don’t tend to specify particular subjects, though academic ones would be a good choice to show that you are suited to this intellectually rigorous career.

Don’t confuse solicitor apprenticeships with paralegal apprenticeships or legal services apprenticeships – these are lower-level apprenticeships that don’t qualify you as a solicitor (though you could always apply for a solicitor apprenticeship after completing one).

2. Accountant

Accountants ensure that an organisation’s finances are in good order. This can be by working permanently for just one organisation, or by working for an accountancy firm and being hired in by different organisations to give advice or to audit (check) their financial records.

A number of accountancy firms offer apprenticeships designed to qualify you as a chartered accountant – this is the same level of qualification that you’d work towards if you went to university and then joined an accountancy firm as a graduate. You’ll typically need A levels or equivalent to get a place (UCAS points tariffs in the region of 112 are common) – again, you don’t usually need specific subjects.

3. Actuary

Actuaries calculate the probability of an event happening (for example, a property being flooded), typically on behalf on insurance companies. It’s quite a maths-heavy role.

You can take your first steps towards a career as an actuary via an actuarial apprenticeship. For example, the level 4 actuarial apprenticeship involves taking the first stages of the CAA (certified actuarial analyst) qualification, and you can then carry on sitting further exams to gain your qualifications while you work. You’ll need A levels or equivalent to get onto the level 4 actuarial apprenticeship, including maths as one of your subjects.

4. Journalist

Journalists uncover and report on news stories for newspapers, websites, magazines, TV or radio. To be good at this job you need curiosity, a love of asking questions and the confidence to approach people and situations where you might not be welcome.

In the UK, journalism training is accredited by the National Council for the Training of Journalists (NCTJ). Most journalist jobs require you to have an NCTJ-accredited qualification in journalism. There are a number of journalism apprenticeships that include working towards this while getting paid experience. Employers that have offered journalism apprenticeships recently include The SunThe Sunday TimesThe London Evening Standard and the Independent (joint scheme), Sky, ITV, the BBC and regional newspapers. Alternatively you could take an NCTJ-accredited qualification and pay for it yourself before looking for work. Accredited courses do include university degrees and postgraduate qualifications, which are both popular options; however, there’s no need to do one of these unless you particularly want to go to university.

5. Software developer

Software developers use their coding skills to create or improve software.

There isn’t a specific qualification you need to work as a software developer. Some employers like their developers to have a relevant degree (eg computer science) but many others don’t mind. The most important thing is that you have experience using the coding languages and project management methods that they need. There are plenty of software development apprenticeships available – some ask for A levels or equivalent (and may require one or more to be in a subject such as IT, maths, or science, or for you to have an engineering BTEC), while for others you only need good GCSEs or equivalent. Some software development apprenticeships include studying for a university degree.

Other careers to consider

Nothing here that appeals to you? You could also take a look at business careers (such as marketing and HR), engineering careersbanking careersproperty and insurance, which attract many graduates but also have opportunities for school leavers.