Graduate Vs Apprentice

Welcome to the first in the series of our Graduate Vs Apprentice blogs!

During this series I will be attempting to answer the question that seems to be in every young person’s, parent’s and employer’s heads these days: Which is better, apprenticeships or university?

One of the problems I have found personally with the Graduate Vs Apprentice argument while thinking and researching about it is that the facts are getting twisted and misconstrued – something that seems to happen whenever the media gets involved. So I am here to try and clarify a few things for you.

Let’s get one thing out of the way first. It seems that even as much as we sometimes hate to admit it, I’d say the majority of us are financially motivated. We need money to survive and keep a roof over our heads. Baring this in mind, one of the first questions I will look at (despite some very conflicting information out there) is who ends up earning more over their lifetime? Looking at various news and journal articles about this topic, (The Guardian, The Mirror, Sky News and The Student Room to name but a few), there seems to be some conflicting or massively generalised information given to us. So, I’m here to demystify this question for you.

The first thing one should look at when considering the Graduate Vs Apprentice subject is what kind of apprenticeships are available to people and which are being discussed? There are three different levels of apprenticeship qualifications. The lowest level is in fact called ‘intermediate’. This level is the equivalent to obtaining 5 GCSE’s. The middle level is ‘advanced’ and is the equivalent of 2 A levels. The highest level is ‘higher’ which can lead to a Level Four NVQ or a foundation degree. There are even apprenticeships that were introduced in 2015 that are now trying to incorporate a degree qualification within themselves in the relevant subject.[1] One can already see that there are varying levels of apprenticeships out there. Unfortunately, more often than not, when people/journals/news articles refer to apprenticeship schemes they don’t specify or differentiate between these three different levels, but group them as one. One can now see clearly that you cannot compare a level 1 apprenticeship to a foundation or undergraduate degree.

Furthermore, the percentage of people actually doing the higher apprenticeships is far, far lower than the intermediate and advanced levels. In fact, over 60% of apprenticeships undertaken over the last few years have been this lowest level of intermediate.[2] This lowest level is said to ‘offer little value for the apprentice and only marginally better lifetime earnings than secondary school qualifications alone.’[3] Furthermore, the percentage of people who are undertaking the apprenticeships at the higher level that we can compare to university is less than 10%. With this in mind, throughout this blog series, the apprenticeships I will be comparing to will be the highest level. This is as close as one can get to comparing like-for-like apprenticeships to degrees.

So down to the facts; A study published by The Sutton Trust shows apprenticeships can offer as much financial security as many undergraduate degrees. People who complete apprenticeships have been shown to earn more than non-Russel Group university students overall. However, what some people don’t point out to you is the fact that when they state apprentices earn more, they are in fact only speaking of non-Russel Group University students. In addition to this, graduates who have attended Oxbridge or one of the Russel Group universities are still likely to have the same, or in the majority of cases, higher earnings in general.[4]

One can already see from the last three paragraphs how media and the like are twisting things in the direction of where they want the outcome to be. If they want to prove apprentices earn more than graduates they will be comparing the highest level apprenticeship to the non-Russell Group Universities. Furthermore, if they want to prove that graduates earn more than apprentices then they will be comparing the majority of apprentices (60% doing the lowest level) to graduates or the higher levels of apprentices to Oxbridge or Russell Group graduates. This is shown by the Guardian’s statement ‘Apprenticeships may give you a head start at work, but over the course of a lifetime, graduates earn £500,00 more than non-graduates’.[5] Here is a prime example of generalisation by the Guardian, not stating that this fact is actually only true if one is comparing to non-Russel Group University graduates.

Leading on from the Guardians statement, we see here they point out that apprenticeships give you a head start on earning money. One can become an apprentice from the age of 16, going straight from school into work. This gives them an extra five years to earn money compared to most graduates that don’t start earning proper salaries until the age of 21 or 22 when most finish university. While these 16 year olds won’t be on high earnings as they would only be doing the lowest level apprenticeships, they will still be earning more money than the average student.

On another note, getting our young people into the apprenticeships schemes can be just as difficult as getting them into university courses due to the financial inequality that still exists and we still experience in society every day. Studies show that the small percentage of people accessing the highest level of apprenticeships are generally from a more financially well off family, just like some of those who go to university.[6] Evidence for this is shown in Oliver Wyman’s research which suggests that this higher level of apprenticeships are indeed normally taken by people with a wealthier background.[7] This can mean that they have had additional coaching and special preparation through their education or practical tasks as they can afford to invest money in themselves and their careers giving them the higher earnings when they finish. So it’s not surprising that these people have the potential to earn similar wages over their life to those who attend university. Unfortunately, what this also means is talented people are slipping through our fingers as they can’t afford or access as easily a higher level apprenticeship.

Overall, what this all means is that graduates still have the potential to earn more than the overall average of apprenticeship earnings if one includes the lower two levels, even when looking at the non-Russell Group Universities. In addition to this fact, most employers currently still require degrees and will continue to do so even in another 6 years.[8]

What does this mean for the future? Even though it is predicted that by 2022, 60% of jobs will still require a degree in London, less than a third of jobs in the country as a whole are predicted to be held by graduates by 2022 showing there is a decline in the necessity for a degree and an incline in the opportunities for apprentices. This is in-part due to the fact that political parties and the government have been, and are currently pushing apprenticeships, wanting to increase the number of them by 3 million by 2020.[9] In the last six years the number of 18 year olds undertaking apprenticeships has risen by almost 20%. Furthermore, 19-24 year olds are also more and more undertaking apprenticeships. The number of places for this age group was peaking at 159,000 in 2014.[10]


In conclusion, as a young person myself, I feel students are constantly being brainwashed into thinking that if we don’t go to university we won’t get a job. Going to a grammar school, I felt this was laid on pretty thick where if you didn’t want to be a doctor, lawyer or vet you were going to fail in life. This just isn’t the case. While the apprenticeships aren’t quite as rife as they were decades ago, there is clearly a growing opportunity out there for apprenticeships.  Now degrees are even being incorporated into these apprenticeships to make sure our young people today can be the best they can be. There is a lot of work that still needs to be done to support those who don’t want to go down the academic route but things are looking up.

Next time in the Graduate Vs Apprentice Blog Series, I will be discussing some graduate opinions on the topic and delving deep into why they chose to go to University and whether or not they considered apprenticeships or even knew about them. Watch this space for my next post!


[1] The Editors, ‘Apprentices Can Earn 270% More Than University Graduates’ (15 August 2016), Sky News <>

[2] Mirza-Davis, J. ‘Apprenticeship Statistics: England’, House of Commons; Skills Funding Agency, (1964)

[3]Alison Kershaw, ‘The Apprentices That Earn More Than University Graduates’ (9th October 2015), The Mirror <>

[4] Alison Kershaw, ‘The Apprentices That Earn More Than University Graduates’ (9 October 2015), The Mirror <>

[5] Rachel Banning, ‘What is better for job prospects: University or Apprenticeships?’ (14 March 2016), The Guardian <>

[6] Alison Kershaw, ‘The Apprentices That Earn More Than University Graduates’ (9th October 2015), The Mirror <>

[7] Kirby, Dr. Philip, ‘The Potential of UK Apprenticeships’, Sutton Trust Journal, (2015), p4

[8] Rachel Banning, ‘What is better for job prospects: University or Apprenticeships?’ (14 March 2016), The Guardian <>

[9] Kirby, Dr. Philip, ‘The Potential of UK Apprenticeships’, Sutton Trust Journal, (2015), p4

[10] Martin Williams, ‘University V Apprenticeships: choose the right career option for you’, (10 March 2015) <>

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