Should I do a degree or an apprenticeship?

Starting a career in any field is tricky, and lots of options can be both a blessing and a curse. But for those wanting to get into IT, there are plenty of good choices for getting that dream job, and one is bound to suit you.

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ComputerworldUK looks at three options: degree apprenticeship, apprenticeship and straight degree. But first, what should you consider before jumping into one of the career paths?

What to consider

If you're sat on the face, weighing up whether a degree is really worth the money, or if the work-life balance of an apprenticeship (or degree apprenticeship) is for you, you're definitely not alone.

Your learning style is one of the biggest things to consider and with an apprenticeship, those that learn by doing will have the opportunity to excel.

However, not everyone wants to work while they learn. A lot of people prefer to dedicate more time to study and of course that university lifestyle. And in some respects, a degree apprenticeship is a compromise as in some cases you'll work one day a week and the rest will be left for study.

Naturally, you'll need to consider funding, and all the options we run though come with different pros and cons. Obviously, degrees are expensive and you'll rely on a loan to cover living costs, so for those wanting to skip all of that a degree apprentice will have their costs covered by the government and their employers, and of course, a straight apprenticeship will also receive a wage from their employer.

One thing a degree does have is flexibility. You won't be tied to an employer or a set career path right away, as there are lots of options after university and you can select your modules depending on your interests. This won't deflect the cost but might help those that are undecided about their career path.

Degree apprenticeships

With the tagline 'earn while you learn', a degree apprenticeship could be the ideal option for someone wanting to avoid costly tuition fees and gain hands-on experience.

How does a degree apprenticeship work?

Initially launched as a government scheme in 2015, a degree apprenticeship (unsurprisingly) offers both degree modules and hands-on apprentice training.

Degree apprenticeships essentially combine both higher education and vocational training enabling students to gain a university education without having to cover the cost of tuition. Students enrolling in a degree apprenticeship will gain a full bachelor’s or master’s degree at the end of the course, after which employers can continue their contract of employment with them.

Typically, students will work three to four days a week with the other one to two days being spent in a lecture hall or in private study.

How to apply for a degree apprenticeship

There are searchable databases that list a variety of degree apprenticeships, GOV.UK and The Tech Partnership offer a great resource for sourcing all the latest schemes. Alternatively, you can visit employers' websites and apply via their website. This is a worthwhile task as some employers won't advertise their degree apprenticeships away from their website.

How much does a degree apprenticeship cost?

The payment structure of a degree apprenticeship is relatively simple. A student's training costs and tuition fees will be paid for them by the government and the employer, up to a capped amount of £18,000.

Two-thirds of the total costs, excluding living costs, will be contributed by the government, while the remaining third is paid for by the employer. On top of this employees are obliged to pay students minimum wage.

Pros and cons of a degree apprenticeship

The benefits of a degree apprenticeship might seem obvious, namely the lack of fees and a weekly wage, but the balance between study and hands-on training seems to be its biggest selling feature, marketing itself as the best of both worlds.

So depending on you learning style, a degree apprentice could suit someone looking for practical experience that complements academic learning.

On the other hand, the degree apprenticeship scheme is definitely not for the work-shy, students are expected to work almost a full working week while also submitting essays and university assignments. This means degree apprenticeship students will miss out on the stereotypical 'student lifestyle'.

"We do encourage the degree apprenticeship as it encourages students to get everything that a non-degree would bring but allows them to have that academic qualification as well," said Head of Country Digitisation and Skills for Cisco UK, Hema Marshall.

"Academica can sometimes be quite difficult for some people. So it's a choice about where their strengths lie and what the best learning path is for them."

Student testimonial - Accenture degree apprentice Lucy Sarginson explained why she chose a degree apprenticeship

"The biggest pro [of the degree apprenticeship] is coming to work on a Monday to Friday job, getting training, experience and working with a fantastic range of people that also have so much experience," Sarginson said.

"I don't feel like an apprentice at work, I'm just someone else in the office, no one treats me differently because I'm a young apprentice," she added.

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An apprenticeship is essentially a job with an extensive training programme. UK apprentices will gain recognised qualifications while also gaining experience in their chosen field.

What's more, according to GOV.UK, employers believe apprentices are 15 percent more employable than those with other qualifications.

How does an apprenticeship work?

If you choose the apprenticeship route, you'll receive a minimum wage with holiday pay, one day a week classroom study and the chance to learn from experienced for a minimum of one year (with some reaching up to four years).

Depending on the level of qualifications you have, there are numerous different types of apprenticeships on offer, a straight apprenticeship, advanced apprenticeship and higher apprenticeship could the right choice for you. As long as you're aged over 16 there are hundreds of apprenticeship vacancies available in the UK.

How to apply for an apprenticeship

Like degree apprenticeships, there are a vast amount of sites offering lists of appropriate apprenticeships, for example, All About School Leavers and GOV.UK's national apprentice database. If you can't see anything you like there, take a look at individual company sites and email about their apprenticeship opportunities.

How much does an apprenticeship cost?

In England, Government’s National Apprenticeship Service contributes 100 percent of training costs, excluding living costs, if they are between 16 and 19 years of age. Apprentices will also receive national minimum wage.

If you are between 19 and 24 years of age you will receive 50 percent government funding excluding living costs with your employer footing the bill for the remaining 50 percent. There is no upper age limit but funding arrangements are different for those over 24.

Pros and cons of an apprenticeship

Apprenticeships are tailored to those who thrive in a practical learning environment. Apprenticeships offer unrivalled hands-on experience that a university degree would struggle to even compete with.

What's more, students will earn money to gain worthwhile qualifications and of course, there is no student debt to worry about, making this option very attractive to some prospective candidates.

On the other hand, the options are somewhat limited for those choosing the apprenticeship route. Apprenticeship courses are vocational and highlight a clear career path. While this may be seen as a positive for some, those not 100 percent clear on their future career choice might feel pressure to pick one and pursue it as early as 16 years old.

"Some of our apprentices actually did a year at university and it turned out that didn't quite enjoy it or that university life just wasn't for them, so it's really down to individual choice," said Cisco UK's Hema Marshall.

"Apprenticeships still have a slight stigma attached to them. If you think how long apprentices have been around for, since the 12th Century, they've always been associated with trade. I think the perception of apprenticeships is slowing changing, its just how we get that message to the parents and the teachers."

Student testimonial - O2 Apprentice Matt Smart explained why he chose the route of apprentice.

"I had every intention of going to university, but I had a last minute change of mind and haven’t looked back since. Joining the apprenticeship programme at O2 is the best career decision I could have made. The scheme has provided me with invaluable on-the-job training, and means I’ve been able to learn as I earn. Above all, it’s been an opportunity to try out different roles within a broad variety of business areas," Smart said.

"For example, I’m currently working as a SIEM engineer, having previously worked as analyst within the security operations team here at O2. As my knowledge of this team’s vital role within the business has grown, so have my responsibilities. This has helped me to build the skills, experience and above all the confidence that I hope will open even more doors to future career opportunities in the technology sector."

University degree

As I'm sure you're aware, a degree is an academic qualification normally gained from a University. This might be one of the most popular routes in tech with subjects like computer science and other IT-related courses up for grabs, but is it the right choice for you? If you're undecided about whether to begin an apprenticeship or not, a degree might be one to consider as it takes the pressure off finding you 'dream job', instead it enables you to explore the greater field.

How does a degree work?

A standard Bachelor's degree is three years long with frequent examinations and coursework projects. Most Bachelor degrees will conclude with a dissertation and will result in students receiving either first class honours, upper second class honours, lower second class honours or third class honours (the lowest grade possible with honours).

There are a few variants of the standard degree format. Firstly, some subjects may offer sandwich courses, this is a full degree with an extra year spent in industry, normally taken after the first or second year (sandwiched in between a standard three-year course).

Secondly, some people may wish to enrol part-time and work at the same time, and while this will double your time at university, it will also mean you can take the course at your own pace and ensuring your living costs are paid for without the need for a maintenance loan.

Thirdly, for those wanting a base in the technology industry, there is always the foundation degree. This is a qualification, one step lower than a Bachelor's degree which usually centres on a vocational course lasting two years. Students can receive this qualification via university or college of higher education.

How to apply for a degree

UK university applications will be sent through UCAS, the Universities and Colleges Admissions Service that  operates the application process for British universities.

To apply for a place at your chosen university you must complete submit an application via UCAS' online Apply portal. Next, you can choose up to five different courses (or different universities) to apply for.

From there, students will hear back from the universities and find out whether they received a conditional or unconditional offer. A conditional offer to university means that acceptance to the course you've applied for is dependent on obtaining the required A-level grades, whereas an unconditional offer means you have been accepted regardless of your grades. Each grade corresponds to an amount of UCAS points and it is this number of UCAS points that will determine whether you've matched the grades of your conditional offer.

How much does a degree cost?

Currently, new students enrolling from 2016 on a three-year Bachelor's degree will be charged up to £9,000 per year with UK students living away from home and outside of London receiving maintenance loans of up to £8,200 (inside London up to £10,702).

Students can also apply for a student loan to cover their tuition fees of up to £9,000 which depending on your graduate wage, will have to be paid back.

Pros and cons of a degree

When compared with an apprenticeship or a degree apprenticeship, it's easy to jump to the obvious con, the cost. However, although the cost is considerably higher, the career choices available as a graduate are much less restrictive. Graduates are not pigeon-holed or assigned one particular role, instead, they can use the valuable skills learned at university and apply them to a variety of jobs.

On the other hand, a degree without a sandwich year or year in industry means students lose out on important practical training and in terms of experience in the field, are years behind their apprentice/degree apprentice counterparts.

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