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University or Apprenticeship? Which is Better for You?

Amanda Bathory-Griffiths - Last Update: 18 Jun 2021


The number of undergraduates outweighs apprentices by 86%

What's the difference between university and apprenticeship qualifications?

Graduate and Apprenticeship salaries

Student and apprentice lifestyles



Amanda Bathory-Griffiths
Amanda Bathory-Griffiths

If you're at a crossroads and choosing whether to go to uni, or become a skilled apprentice, this is the comparison guide for you.

Key points:

  • Most people in Wales still opt for university rather than an apprenticeship
  • Apprenticeships and academic qualifications run in parallel, and each has an equivalent
  • Both routes boast fantastic benefits, but the right route for you depends on your real-world needs and priorities

The number of undergraduates outweighs apprentices by 86%

In June 2021, TSW Training Apprenticeships analysed the Welsh Government's apprenticeships new starts data. We projected that in 2020, there would have been approximately 18,852 new apprentices working in Wales.[1]

The number of new undergraduates enrolled in Welsh universities in 2019/20 was 136,355.[2]

Based on our research, students outstripped apprentices by 86%.[3]

There is a cavernous application gap between the two learning routes, which suggests that school leavers and the people helping them to choose a career path, favour applying for BAs and BScs, rather than apprenticeships.

But both boast fantastic benefits.

For example, if you take an apprenticeship, you earn while you learn and dodge hefty tuition fees.

Go to university and you get the chance to understand more about a subject you love and develop your expertise. Plus, delay entering the workplace for a few extra years.

Before you fill in your UCAS form, make sure you've explored all that apprenticeships have to offer.


What's the difference between university and apprenticeship qualifications?

University qualifications

At university, you can study for the following qualifications:

  • Undergraduate
  • Postgraduate
  • Taught master's degrees
  • Research Masters degrees
  • PhDs

What is an undergraduate degree?

It's usually the first type of degree you take, and either a Bachelor of Arts, BA(hons), or Bachelor of Science, BSc(hons).

Both types of degree usually last for three years, but you can complete an accelerated degree in two years, plus a year of work experience.

There are also distance learning and part-time options which often elongate the course, depending on the university.

The undergraduate degree, whether a BA, or BSc, will usually involve coursework, assessments, and exams, which include a dissertation or thesis.

What is a post-graduate degree?

Post-graduate refers to a higher-level degree, which you can complete following the completion of your undergraduate qualification.

You can use the term 'post-graduate' to refer to a Masters degree, or a PhD, or a conversion course, like a PGCE.

What is a Masters degree?

A Masters degree is a Level 7 qualification and follows the undergraduate degree, but it is not as advanced as a PhD.

You can take Master of Arts, MA, or Master of Science, MS or MSc.

A Masters degree takes two years full time, but around four years if you take it part-time.

Like the undergraduate degree, you'll need to complete assessments to qualify. But it depends on the course and the university.

It could be a blend of exams, assignments and assessments, plus a dissertation or thesis.

What is a PhD?

A PhD, or a doctoral research degree, is the highest academic achievement you can get.

You become a doctor in your field, which is super impressive stuff, but it’s not exclusive to academic settings – more on that later.

It involves a research project and takes between three to four years to complete. You don't always need an MA, MS or MSc to do a PhD.

It asks you to complete original research and present your results, write a thesis and defend it in a forum, and critique other academic's published literature.

There are different varieties of PhD, for example:

  • Doctor of Business Administration: DBA
  • Doctor of Engineering: EngD / PhD (Eng)
  • Doctor of Education: EdD / D.Ed

Apprenticeship qualifications

There is a vast spectrum of apprenticeship qualifications, specialised to the vocation and field.

Apprenticeship qualifications are equivalent to GCSEs, A Levels, BA/BSc, MA/MS/MSc, and PhDs.

Apprenticeships are a collection of qualifications. For example, one apprenticeship course will contain four qualifications - a vocational course, and three essential skills qualifications.

The apprenticeships start at Level 2 (entry level) and go up to Level 8 (most advanced, equivalent to a PhD).

They take between one and four years to complete, depending on the complexity of the course content, just like the university degrees.

You don't need to work your way up through all the Levels, for example, you can start at a Level 4 if you already have relevant work experience.

Depending on the vocation, you can also apply for post-nominal letters after your name to represent your achievement.

For example, engineers can apply to the Institution of Mechanical engineers register for a professional title:

  • Engineering Technician (EngTech)
  • Incorporated Engineer (IEng)
  • Chartered Engineer (CEng)
  • Information and Communication Technology Technician (ICTTech)

However, there's usually a paid application process and then an annual membership fee.

Graduate and Apprenticeship salaries

In Wales, apprentices must be paid National Minimum Wage, or National Living Wage which is between £4.30 and £8.91 (more about that in our 'How do apprenticeships work?' guide'), depending on the age of the apprentice.

Undergraduates can apply for grants, however, it's not an 'earn while you learn' route.

Students can get a grant of up to £1,000, but there's more information about help with living costs and the Welsh Government Learning Grant (WGLG) on the Student Finance Wales website.

According to Total Jobs, the average graduate salary is £25,000, but a degree doesn't guarantee a salary level and you might find you're starting in an entry-level role, on minimum wage.

Graduates of Welsh universities will start paying back their tuition fees when they reach a repayment threshold salary, which according to Cardiff University is £27,295 a year, £2,274 a month or £524 a week.

An apprenticeship is an accelerated career path and once you're qualified as a skilled worker, you can command a higher salary and apply for relevant roles.

It depends on your vocation and employer, but some will establish pay rise and promotion goalposts throughout your apprenticeship, recognising your abilities and accomplishments.

Apprenticeships are fully funded, so you won't need to pay back any fees from your salary.

Student and apprentice lifestyles

An apprenticeship is a job.

You'll have set hours, a contract, annual leave and everything else that comes with a full-time role. On top of that, you'll have assignments and assessments, plus some tests.

The number of hours it will take to complete the apprenticeship is made known at the outset. And, your study/work timetable is agreed upon before you even get started.

Your learning is largely self-directed with your employer and Training Advisor dipping to redirect your plan and make sure you're on track.

An apprenticeship is very demanding and structured.

In contrast, the student lifestyle is freer because it isn't typically intertwined with a professional job.

An undergraduate degree is not employment.

There will be a schedule of lectures and seminars per week, and you'll be given an outline of the assessments and critical dates for exams at the outset.

But it's autonomous and the experience is what you make of it. Some students will have lots of involvement with their lecturers and tutors, and seek out expert direction. Others will prefer to have the independence to research on their own.

University is as much about getting life experience and socialising as it is about learning.

For those who have responsibilities at home, socio-economic consideration, or found academia to be divorced from real life, apprenticeships give you a chance to discover skills in a practical environment.

No chalk and talk to be seen!


November 2019 to January 2020 = 5070. For January average = 5070/3 months = 1,690 monthly average starts

February to April = 5,170 total new starts

May to July 2020 = 3,465 total new starts

August to October 2020 = 5,835 total new starts

For projected monthly average for November and December 2020 = 1690+5170+3465+5835 = 16,160 / 12 = 1,346

Approximate number of apprenticeship starts in Wales in 2020 = 1690+5170+3465+5835+1346+1346 = 18,852  


[3] 136355 - 18852 / 136355 * 100 = 86.174