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The 5 Best Alternatives to University

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Although it’s often pushed as the natural route to follow after you leave college or sixth-form, university isn’t for everyone.

That’s particularly true if you didn’t get the exam results that you were expecting.

For some people, when it comes to gaining the skills, knowledge and experience that they need for a particular career, it might not even help that much.

There can be more effective ways to get the career you want, rather than just following everyone else heading off to student halls.

So, with that in mind, here are 5 of the best alternatives to university and higher education!


Getting a professional qualification

A lot of people don’t realise it, but there are a wide variety of professional qualifications which will provide you with the same basic knowledge as a degree. As a result, you won’t need to go to university at all.

Professional qualifications are similar to degrees, except they’re generally more focused on practical skills. They concentrate more on work-based learning and in putting theory into practice, rather than being purely theoretical like many degrees.

You can often study professional qualifications at a college, full-time or part-time, or if you want more flexibility, you can study them completely online – this is a great option if you’ve got a lot of prior commitments and need a course that you can fit around them.

Of course, the exact professional qualification that’s best for you will depend on the specific industry and career that you want to work in. Most industries have an accreditation body who are responsible for regulating standards and quality, and for issuing industry-specific, professional qualifications. They’ll usually have information about professional qualifications you can take to get started in that sector.

Here are a few accreditation bodies for popular industries and the types of qualification that they offer:


Human Resources: Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (CIPD)

Qualifications offered:


Accountancy and Bookkeeping: Association of Accounting Technicians (AAT)

  • AAT Foundation Certificate
  • AAT Advanced Diploma
  • AAT Professional Diploma

Marketing: Chartered Institute of Marketing (CIM)

These make a great option if you don’t have money to burn and don’t want to be weighed down by a £50k+ debt that you’ll have to pay back at the end of a university course.


Entry-level jobs

If further study isn’t something you’re interested in, don’t panic. Heading straight into the world of work might be a good option for you.

There are still a large number of fulfilling, long-term careers that you can break into without any prior experience and with less-stringent entry requirements than a full degree course.

Some of the most common ones include:

  • Marketing
  • Real estate
  • Emergency services
  • Policing
  • Air traffic control

Roles like this tend to have a lot of potential for career progression, allowing you to learn on the job and move steadily up the career ladder – all without needing to set foot in a lecture theatre.

The trick is to just find the opportunities! If you aren’t afraid of hard work and of proving yourself, getting an entry-level job is a brilliant way to learn the specifics of an industry, without needing to get into lots of debt.


Higher apprenticeships (and degree apprenticeships)

Apprenticeships are a particularly effective alternative to university if you want to learn a specific skill and gain relevant work experience at the same time.

An apprenticeship combines work with study, allowing you to earn money whilst you’re learning on the job: it basically lets you ‘earn while you learn’. They’re usually equivalent to a qualification at Level 4 or above. You’ll spend part of your time studying at college and part of your time working, putting what you learn into practice at your placement.

According to UCAS (the UK’s University and Colleges Admissions Service), 71% of apprentices even go on to stay with their employers after their apprenticeship ends. This makes a good option to choose if you don’t want to be lumbered with lots of debt from tuition fees.


Higher National Diploma

If you want to get a qualification, but the thought of intense study at university puts you off, why not consider a Higher National Diploma (HND)?

This is a Level 5 skills-focused qualification that aims to prepare you for a career in a particular industry. It’s equivalent to a Foundation Degree or the first two years of a Bachelor’s degree.

You’ll normally be able to study this at a college and most HNDs can be completed either full-time or part-time.

The most common subjects you can take at HND level include:

  • Agriculture
  • Business Management
  • Computing
  • Construction
  • Civil Engineering
  • Engineering
  • Health and Social Care
  • Hospitality
  • Performing Arts
  • Photography
  • Sport

Gap year

It might be a bit of cliche now, but taking a gap year is still a pretty effective way to give yourself some breathing space when it comes to deciding what you want to do rather than go to university.

A gap year can help you to identify the career that you’d like and determine how to achieve it, along with giving you the opportunity to learn more about society and the world, experience different cultures and learn more about yourself.

It’s essentially a year where you do whatever you want. A lot of people use it to travel more and experience different countries, whilst some use it to gain more knowledge and skills.

Basically, a gap year will give you the time to find out what it is that you really want to do. When it comes to deciding something as important as your future career, taking the time to think carefully can well be worth the effort.

We hope you’ve found these alternatives useful and that you’ve got a better idea of what routes school or college leavers can pursue other than just going to university.


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