University vs apprenticeships: What’s the best way to grow talent?

benBen Rowland is the co-founder of Arch Apprentices, the UK’s leading digital and IT apprenticeship provider that combines young talent with great employers like Facebook and Google to create valuable and productive employees in entry level IT and digital jobs. Ben has over fifteen years’ experience building organisations and initiatives that address social and economic challenges.




I went to university. A very good one.

I run an apprenticeship programme. It’s also a very good one.

I have some insights, therefore, on the relative merits of university versus apprenticeships, and I hope sharing them honestly and candidly is of some use to those reading this.

These are the main areas to consider when thinking about whether you – or someone you are advising – should go to university or do an apprenticeship: money; what you learn; time; fun; and a couple of other key considerations.


BenefitsFirst, I think the argument about “student debt” versus “no student debt” is something of a red herring. The way student loans are set up in this country, you only pay back the loan once you hit an earnings threshold, and even then the repayment amounts are not high (for example, if you are a graduate earning £30,000 a year, you pay back £98 a month; if you are earning £21,000 a year you pay back £30 a month).

More relevant is the question about a comparison of earnings over a period of time. The historic evidence is that being a graduate is worth over £100,000 compared to someone without a degree.  But this is historic and changing fast.

In 2013 an ONS report showed that 46% of graduates were working in jobs that did not require a degree; that is, they were not experiencing the anticipated benefit of having a degree. In our own experience at Arch, it is not uncommon for someone who started their apprenticeship on less than £10,000 a year as an 18 year old to be earning £25,000 by the time they are 20, a full year ahead of when they would have graduated.

In summary, university no longer guarantees you a good salary and the right apprenticeship can lead quickly to salaries that out-compete the salaries of those who have been to university.

What you learn

I learned in two ways when I was at university. I learned from my course, a liberal arts degree (Latin and Ancient Greek Literature and Philosophy if you really want to know!). I learned about great literature, about human thought and humanity. In the process I learned how to structure complex, abstract thinking.

It’s not without relevance to the working world, but it was definitely less useful for my career than what I learned in the second way, which was from everything I did in between the degree bits: getting involved in running things, work experience and volunteering during the holiday. These things taught me what is important in the world of work and about my strengths and weaknesses. Certainly I talked about these things in job interviews far more than I ever did about Greek philosophers!

For a fast growing number of careers, being able to do something is far more important than knowing the academic theory that sits behind it. It’s certainly true for IT and digital where the pace of change means that what you have learned in the first year of university is out of date by the time you hit graduation. This is why the Big Four accounting firms, law firms and other professional services firms are going back to school leavers and apprenticeships as a key way to hire new talent.

Bear in mind as well that, despite puffed up claims to the contrary, most universities offer outdated and poor advice on how to get into the world of work and careers, with a few notable exceptions.


Three years – or even four – is a long time. You can achieve a lot in that time. Meet a lot of people. Learn a lot of things. Earn a fair bit of money. Time is the one thing you can never get back or make up. So giving up three years to go to university is a big decision in terms of time.

Sadly, we have some 30-40 graduates apply for apprenticeships with us every month because they cannot get decent jobs. It’s such a shame, because we can’t help them (graduates are excluded from Government funding for apprenticeships) and they have spent three or four years acquiring debt, working hard and all for something that has not materialised.

Compare that to our apprentices, who work hard, earn money (rather than getting into debt), get a three-year head-start on those who have gone to university, have met tons of people and had a huge range of experiences.

In fact, I spent five years at university (glutton for punishment, my undergraduate degree was four years and I did a Master’s after that). Ignoring the fact that when I did my degree, way back in the 20th Century, it was free, I often wonder what I could have done with that five years when I was young, full of energy and with no financial or family constraints.


I had a lot of fun at university. It’s nice being able to go out four nights a week and have a lie-in every morning the next day. It’s fun that there are thousands of other people your age immediately around you who want to do the same things – and not having mum and dad around to disapprove. But hangovers and lie-ins soon lose their novelty.

And of course, our apprentices have lots of fun too. Lots of them spend the weekend going to see their mates who are at university – and are the ones who’ve got the money to buy the drinks!  Lots of them enjoy their weekend social lives every bit as much as a university student does. They become social friends with colleagues at work and – believe it or not – they have fun with their work colleagues in the office.

I made some good friends at university and had some good times, but these memories I cherish less than those amazing and fun times I’ve had with people that I’ve met through work.

Final key considerations

There are three more things that are important to note.

The first is obvious: it’s all about the individual and what is right for them.

The second, I hope, is equally obvious: it’s not just about “university versus an apprenticeship”; it depends on how good the university degree on offer is and how good the apprenticeship on offer is. There are good universities and terrible ones, and even at a single university there are degrees that are worth doing and degrees that are not. The same is true of apprenticeships.

Finally, you need to be aware that people often recommend to others what they have done as a way of sub-consciously reassuring themselves that they made the right choices. So if someone is telling you that university is the only way to go, is that because that’s what they did?  It’s also true that many people do not know just how rich and varied the opportunities offered by apprenticeships are.

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