Apprenticeships or University – Which is Best for You?

We’re living in a time where everything not only costs but will likely cost even more in the future. This is crucial given the importance that money plays in all our lives; it pays our bills, puts food on the table, lets you have a nice weekend away with friends & family, and even buys you a nice car if you’ve got enough of it.

“The more of wisdom we know, the more we may earn. That man who seeks to learn more of his craft shall be richly rewarded.”

George S. Clason – The Richest Man in Babylon

Whether you’re a school leaver looking at their options post-GCSEs, or a new career starter in search of training, the above quote puts your future into perspective. We covered Apprenticeships vs University in a previous article which provided the pros and cons of each route, so for this article, we’re going to go a little deeper, and look at the financial implications of each in these crazy, economically uncertain times.


If The Richest Man in Babylon was anything to go by, then apprenticeships could be the ideal route. You’d be earning and learning at the same time, and thanks to the Employer Levy’s introduction in 2017, you won’t exactly be earning peanuts either…

For context, the Employer Levy ruled that companies with a pay bill of £3 million or more must pay 0.5% of that bill into a fund meant for funding apprenticeship talent. This changed the perceived pay stigma associated with apprenticeships when compared to the ‘mainstream’ pathway of university; apprentices would only earn a pittance in the pre-levy days, with an average rate of £6.98 per hour for L2/3 apprentices (Apprenticeship Pay Survey 2016: Great Britain). So why would you go into an apprenticeship where you work really hard for very little when you can just go, get a student loan and go to university? You get three years studying for a degree, a massive social life, plenty of fun, and plenty of time to figure out what you want to do. But as you’ll see later, there’s quite an asterisk attached to that.

Thankfully, employers seem to have caught on that apprentices don’t want to be earning peanuts for their time. Nowadays, the average hourly rate of apprenticeships is £9.98 per hour (Apprenticeship Evaluation 2021: Learner Survey (May 2022)); that works out as an £5,850 increase from 2016 if you’re working a 37.5 hour a week vacancy. Think about what you could afford with that extra money (after tax, obviously).

But while employers are investing more money into apprenticeship salaries, the irony of that is that money is also being lost through the Levy due to unspent funds. Do you want to guess how much money has been lost before you scroll down? Have a think and keep that number in your head.

Here comes the kicker…

Between 2017-2021, over £2 billion of unspent levy funds was clawed back by the Treasury (DfE forced to reveal true amount of apprenticeship funding returned to Treasury ( The amount of teaching & healthcare apprentices you could recruit and train with that amount of money could end all these recent strikes for years to come. Just let that sink in for a moment. It makes the idea of a digital skills gap sound quite adorable, to be honest.

So, what’s the main point here? Surely employers will catch on sooner rather than later that they’re going to end up wasting money & talent by not maximising their levy spending. Whether they decide to use it all up in their organisation or transfer 25% of it to an SME, smarter utilisation of their levy funds will lead to apprenticeships with more competitive salaries and thus more attractive for people from different backgrounds who want to go down the apprenticeship route, enhancing diversity & inclusion.


On the other side of the spectrum, we have the choice of university. Life as a university student can be somewhat cheap, with a maintenance loan on top of the tuition fees to help you with accommodation, and the rest is up to you as you work towards your degree in the field you’re interested in. Now, if you’re still weighing up your options by the time you do your A-Levels, this is likely the better pathway for you, as you can use those three/four years to work towards your degree, have as much fun as you desire and start getting some experience in whatever you decide to pursue.

Opting for this could be the ideal choice if your intention is to delve into diverse subjects, as opposed to an Apprenticeship which centers around a singular field. Naturally, those enrolled in an Apprenticeship obtain valuable employment experience, giving them a competitive edge in their journey towards a career in the office environment.

But as alluded to earlier, there is an asterisk to all the above. There is the issue of roughly £50,000 (not including interest) of loans that you’ll probably never fully pay off. When you think about it, if those three years of obtaining a degree and enjoying your social life is the big night out, the debt you’d have to pay until you’re 55 is the crushing hangover. Essentially, you’re buying yourself an extra three/four years to figure out your professional interests while accruing debt and getting a degree that looks attractive in your job market search.

And talking of large sums of money, according to the Commons Library, the total value of outstanding student loans totalled £182 billion in March 2022, and is projected to increase to around £460 billion by the 2040’s (yeah, you thought £2 billion was large, didn’t you?) . That’s enough money to buy Manchester United over 130 times!

Those kinds of numbers scream ‘non-sustainable business model’, while the unspent levy funds only scream ‘could-be-more-sustainable business model’ (not sure that term will ever catch on!). It does make you think how on earth the government will be able to pay that off; they won’t if these figures are anything to go by. And while raising prices everywhere else in the country may not solve that problem, it does raise the risk of university graduates being hit with higher interest rates in the future to offset some of that debt. The 7.3% interest freeze will not last forever, and there’s even the possibility of paying off loans after you turn 55 as well (I mean, that’s the ruling now but I won’t hold my breath if the retirement age keeps going up!). Equally, it doesn’t mean that the Treasury won’t stop clawing back unspent Levy funds (which may increase as well). The point is that anything is possible.

So now that we’ve looked at both sides again, how do we summarise all of this? Whether you decide to do an apprenticeship or a university degree, you’re inevitably going to learn, whether that’s life skills or more specialist skills in your subject area, and that will reward you later in life. But hindsight is a beautiful thing, so you’ll know for sure whether you made the right decision maybe five or ten years down the road. The best thing you can do is be clear on what you want for your future, and as you get older, your awareness of external issues that will affect your life, such as politics and economics, will grow as well. So, you may as well get a head start on this and be clear about what you want your own Babylon to look like.  

Your future hinges on a crucial decision: apprenticeships or university?  Apprenticeships allow you to earn while you learn, backed by increased wages, with ever-growing and evolving opportunities. Yet, unspent Levy funds continue to cast a shadow on their potential. Meanwhile, the universities give you years to explore multiple subjects but accrue debt, with impending questions about the system’s sustainability. Regardless of the pathway you decide to choose, at the end of the day learning and growth from both will enrich you, The ultimate decision? The best choice will always center around your own personal vision for the future.

Whether your path leads you to the halls of academia or the world of apprenticeships, know that we stand ready to help you get the best out of both choices. As a graduate, our recruitment team will help you discover entry-level roles fresh out of university and if you decide to go down the apprenticeship pathway, we will connect you to companies that will cultivate your talents and foster your growth. When it comes to your decision and career at Just IT, we are the bridge between them to help you reach the end goal.