Degree Apprenticeships: Get a UK Degree, Free

A degree apprenticeship can offer the best of both worlds – it allows you to study towards a degree while gaining invaluable industry experience and earning a salary.
Degree Apprenticeships: Get a UK Degree, Free
By Carli Allan
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Is university the only pathway to success? How about earning while you learn as an alternative approach to further education? 

A degree apprenticeship can offer the best of both worlds – it allows you to study towards a degree while gaining invaluable industry experience and earning a salary. Not only will you achieve an undergraduate or master’s degree – just like a student who has got their degree the traditional way – you’ll also gain real life work experience and have the opportunity of a full-time position with the company. And here’s the best part? You can say goodbye to student debt because your tuition fees will be covered! 

A degree apprenticeship is paid for by the employer and government funding, and the employer is responsible for paying the apprentice's salary of at least the applicable National Minimum Wage.

Degree apprenticeships are Level 6 (for those who complete a bachelor's degree) and Level 7 (for those who complete a master's). A Level 6 typically takes between three and six years to complete. 

Does it feel like you’re hearing about this for the first time? Well that’s because degree apprenticeship are quite new. Introduced by the government in 2015 to address shortages in key industries such as aerospace engineering, chartered surveying and nuclear energy, degree apprenticeships provide a practical pathway for 18-19-year-olds to enter the workforce. 

Historically, there’s been a long-standing connection between apprenticeships and skilled trades such as construction, hairdressing and catering. These higher-level apprenticeships offer an excellent opportunity to take that crucial first step into esteemed organisations like BBC, IBM and Virgin.

They’re available in a range of industries, from engineering, to science, to law, to marketing and digital, and are offered by around 100 universities in England and Wales including University of Warwick, Bristol University, University of Exeter, Sheffield Hallam University and Manchester Metropolitan University.

The degree apprenticeship scheme offers opportunities in these sectors with high-profile employers including:

  • Aerospace - Airbus and BAE Systems
  • Automotive - BMW Group UK, Rolls-Royce, Toyota Manufacturing UK
  • Construction - BAM Construct UK Ltd, Laing O'Rourke 
  • Defence - General Dynamics and Serco
  • Digital and technology solutions - BT, Fujitsu and Network Rail
  • Finance - Barclays, HSBC, Lloyds and Santander
  • Life and industrial sciences - Astra Zeneca and Pfizer
  • Nuclear - EDF Energy and Sellafield
  • Power engineering - Siemens and SSE
  • Surveying - AECOM, Axis and Faithorn Farrell Timms

The rise of degree apprenticeships

Degree apprenticeships are on the rise. Last year just over 41,000 students started a degree apprenticeship, compared to 37,8o0 the year before. With a reported 22% increase in the number of apprenticeship views on UCAS’ Career Finder last year, more students are looking for apprenticeship opportunities than ever before.

The growing number of students to recognise the potential of these degree apprenticeships means that securing one is no easy task. The selection process for these apprenticeships is tough; JP Morgan, for example, typically has around 7,000 applicants for only 25 places available. 

There is a noticeable surge in interest among Sixth Form students for alternative pathways, and independent schools across the UK are not only celebrating offers from prestigious institutions like Oxbridge and the Russell Group, but also proudly highlighting their students’ successes in securing degree apprenticeships.

Stephen Perse Foundation student Catherine celebrates achieving a degree apprenticeship with Mott MacDonald, specialising in Civil Engineering. 

Some examples include a Bryanston student who has just started a degree apprenticeship at the BBC and Brentwood School student Ella McGillicuddy who beat over 8,000 other applicants to be awarded a degree apprenticeship with Barclays.

Brian Hays, International Recruitment Manager at Brentwood, said:

"The introduction of degree apprenticeships as another pathway for students when they leave school is becoming more popular for students here at Brentwood School.

"Students are gaining those ‘on the job’ skills that are so vitally important and helpful in the workplace. They get the opportunity to settle into a company and get first-hand experience of doing the job, as well as having days at university studying the theory behind the work they are completing."

Also this year, Stephen Perse Foundation student Catherine achieved a degree apprenticeship with Mott MacDonald, specialising in Civil Engineering. Commenting on her success, the school's Head of Guidance Allison Curry said:

“These are highly competitive (frequently more competitive than Oxbridge) both in terms of the high numbers of students applying and the rigorous and arduous multiple interview/selection process involved. They are also currently a key focus of UCAS and the emerging directions of university education in the future.”

Why do a degree apprenticeship?

Apart from being the envy of friends who are leaving university with a £40,000 debt, what are the top reasons for completing a degree apprenticeship? 

Ben Rowland, author of Understanding Apprenticeships: A Student's Guide, says:

“A degree apprenticeship is a dream for anyone who wants to get a degree without getting into debt and getting the first three years of their career thrown in. They represent a remarkable opportunity. This means they are competitive to get, and often offered by bigger or more established employers such as BT and the 'Big Four' accounting firms.  

“A growing number of 'blue chip' firms have cottoned onto the fact that apprenticeships are just as good a way to get the right young people into their firms as traditional graduate programmes that get people coming out of university.  

"So the key is to do your research, aiming to figure out a reasonable shortlist of the kind of firms you want to work for and what sort of roles you think you would do well, and then to plan out how you are going to apply for them. Remember, if they're asking for an apprentice, then they're asking for someone like you!”

Being relatively new, there’s little data to show what the longer-term outcomes and benefits are for people who have done degree apprenticeships.

Queen Mary University of London was the first Russell Group University to launch apprenticeships back in 2015, "recognising the instrumental role they can play, especially in helping students from under-represented backgrounds succeed".  A university spokesperson told WhichSchoolAdvisor:  

“However, all types of students can excel at a degree apprenticeship and they are a fast growing route for employers wanting to attracting top talent. Degree apprenticeships are highly competitive, so it’s important to spend time on any application, make it personal, and showcase any knowledge that sets you apart from other candidates.

The university now offers seven degree apprenticeships – covering finance, digital and technology solutions, clinical education, economics and systems engineering. 
The growth in the number of degree apprenticeships we offer, and the increase in uptake, demonstrates both their popularity and our commitment to helping students progress through employment-based education opportunities and widening access across the university.”

Queen Mary University of London was the first Russell Group University to launch apprenticeships back in 2015

How does a degree apprenticeship compare to traditional university study?

Degree apprenticeships aren't for everyone and there are some drawbacks as well.

Here are some of the cons to consider.

You’ll need to manage both work and study commitments which will require extra effort and time. Also, while university students will have regular holidays and the long break over the summer, degree apprentices work all year round. However, you’re entitled to a statutory holiday of 28 days and many employers will also grant a certain number of study leave days.

You may feel that you are missing out on the full university experience. Unlike a full-time student, you won’t qualify for on-campus accommodation or have as much time for all the social aspects of university life. Yes, you’ll still have access to all of the campus facilities such as the gym and Students Union bar – but will you have the time to use them?

Most of the courses are quite technical and they are very industry-specific so they are certainly more suitable for students who have a specialist field in mind. 

How can I apply for a degree apprenticeship?

Applying for a degree apprenticeship is very much like applying for a job. You’ll need to apply directly with the employer, not through the university. (From 2024, however, students will be able to apply for apprenticeships through UCAS alongside an undergraduate degree application.) Similar to applying for a job, you’ll need your CV and a strong covering letter and any required supporting documents; you’ll typically need Level 3 qualifications, such as A Levels, BTEC, NVQ or an advanced apprenticeship.

Deadlines vary, but if you are looking to start a degree apprenticeship in September 2024, you may need to apply as early as December this year.

The best starting point when searching for a degree apprenticeship is the UCAS website. You can also look to your school careers and university counsellor for advice and information throughout the application process.

With only a limited number available, degree apprenticeships are extremely competitive – so how can a student improve their chances of being successful? Ben Rowland has this advice.

“The key advice here is to understand yourself first and foremost and figure out how you will be a good choice for them - what's your 'story' for the apprenticeship you want. It's also really valuable to get work experience in something related to the apprenticeship you might be applying for - it doesn't have to be exactly the same thing, but something similar. 

“Work experience allows you to get an understanding of what that sort of role could be like and, crucially, it shows to a potential employer that you really are interested and committed.”

What other apprenticeships are available in the UK?

Degree apprenticeships are the newest addition to the UK’s well-established apprenticeships scheme. There is a wide choice of apprenticeships across different industries and at different levels – Intermediate, Advanced, Higher – which all offer vocational training. 

Ben Rowland says:

“If you’re not able to get a degree apprenticeship, do not fear – other apprenticeships appear to make a real difference to your career in terms of earnings and getting experience (plus they are typically quite a bit shorter than a degree apprenticeship). 

“In fact, the tentative data suggests that starting salaries for those doing apprentices at Levels 3 and 4 are only a shade lower than average graduate starting salaries at about £20,000 a year - and often the person doing the apprentice is earning more after three years than the graduate salary they would have been moving into if they'd gone down the university route.”

Degree apprenticeships are Level 6 (for those who complete a bachelor's degree) and Level 7 (for those who complete a master's).

The future of degree apprenticeships

A common theme raised by apprentices is the need to increase awareness of apprenticeships as a career path. As Jane Hickie, the recent Chief Executive of the Association of Employment and Learning Providers, has said: “Accessing information about apprenticeships can be confusing and complicated at times.” 

The decision by UCAS to let undergraduate degrees and apprenticeships sit side-by-side on its site from 2024 is a positive step – one that universities and industries hope will support and guide more students into degree apprenticeships.
The future growth of apprenticeships relies on further collaboration between the government, universities and employers in offering degree apprenticeships. Schools can also play a key role by helping to change the outdated perception of apprenticeships as inferior, a last resort or being primarily focused on manual jobs.

Ben Rowland says:

“The first and most important thing is that teachers educate themselves about two things. Firstly, just because they used their degree to get their job (which is true of almost all teachers), does not mean that you cannot get a great career without one – and this applies to their 'smartest' students too.

“Secondly, schools need to consider the richness of what apprenticeships can offer, not just in terms of blue-chip firms but also in terms of exciting and demanding careers, for example in data and cybersecurity.”

One school that recognises the value of degree apprenticeships is Bryanston, a co-ed, all-through day and boarding school in Dorset that celebrates the individuality of its 680 students. Head Richard Jones said:

“There are more opportunities for exploration and discovery here. As a result, after spending five years or more with us, they go off in all sorts of different directions that align with their individual aspirations and goals.

“We don't measure our success solely based on the number of offers our students receive from Russell Group universities or Oxbridge. One of our students secured a place in the highly competitive BBC journalist apprenticeship scheme, for example. Some students join esteemed programs like the JP Morgan apprenticeship scheme, while others pursue paths at an art foundation or music conservatoire. As long as we have equipped them with the skillset to pursue whatever it is they want to pursue, that's the main thing.”

International schools are also catching on to the opportunities offered by a degree apprenticeship - and international students can apply for a UK apprenticeship providing they are eligible to work in the UK and have the necessary visas.

While schools in the UK and overseas have made significant strides in promoting degree apprenticeships, there is clearly work to be done on boosting the profile of these programmes. It is ongoing and there are exciting developments on the horizon, so it’s definitely a space worth watching.

Ben Rowland says the future looks promising for apprentices.

“Apprenticeships worldwide are on the increase, as employers and governments realise that they work in a modern 21st Century economy. Here in the UK, the system is set up nicely to support continued growth of apprenticeships, not least because a large chunk of the funding, through the Apprenticeship Levy, comes from large employers.  

“Expect to see more apprenticeships become available in line with new jobs emerging in the economy, but also expect to see some apprenticeships being withdrawn because in fact there hasn't been the demand for them. My sincere hope is that the UK government backs its own conclusions and provides the extra funding requires to enable all employers to access as many talented young people as they can through apprenticeships.”

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