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Degree apprenticeships: can you learn while you earn?

degree apprenticeship

As students are busy submitting their UCAS applications, our guest, Ross Aynsley, an apprentice at Royal Bank of Scotland, explains why heading straight to uni isn’t the only route to a successful career.

When I was in sixth form doing my Advanced Highers in 2013, the expectation was that I would go to university. At my school, a lot of time was spent preparing Ucas applications and writing personal statements with almost no mention of other options.

I did actually apply to go to university and I had a place to study Marketing and Economics at Strathclyde Business School in Glasgow. But when I realised the job market was saturated with students searching for work, I decided to do the opposite and try to get my foot in the door of a well-known organisation.

Road to apprenticeship

I was at my wits’ end sifting through countless job sites when I Googled ‘not going to uni’ and found information about an RBS apprenticeship fayre that was happening the next day. I went along and the HR team answered all my questions about the roles available, salaries and career paths.

At the time, RBS was one of the few banks offering an apprenticeship programme. It was putting a lot of emphasis on upcoming talent and I felt as though it would value and invest time in me.

I joined the bank as an apprentice on the Level 3 NVQ for Business & Administration and later decided I wanted to study for a degree. After applying to the degree programme, I was accepted to study for a BSc in Banking and Finance.

My role as an apprentice is highly varied. I work across commercial and private banking on large change projects and for the past 18 months, I’ve been leading part of a large project on improving customer information security across the bank. I’ve been able to work with some of the most senior managers in the bank and it’s been a great learning curve for me.

Changing perceptions

When I first told my friends I was going to do an apprenticeship, they were sceptical. Most of them were already at university and probably thought an apprenticeship was a lesser endeavour.

I think there can sometimes be a stigma attached to not going to university and I’m not sure whether schools explore the alternatives enough.

Also, people’s perceptions of apprenticeships tend to focus around trades, so an apprenticeship at a bank was hard for some people to get to grips with.

I think that’s changing now though. We have a long way to go to ensure that everyone sees apprenticeships as a serious alternative to University – there’s still more work to be done. Government support for modern apprenticeships has really boosted awareness, and more and more companies are recognising the value that apprentices bring to an organisation.

I often get asked my advice for those choosing between university and an apprenticeship. But what works for one person doesn’t work for another. I think you need to consider the end goal before you decide.

Sometimes a degree is a prerequisite for a job, but if you want to work in an industry where they offer apprenticeships, why would you wait four years or more to secure a position when you can get on a career path and study at the same time?

This is a guest contribution by Ross Aynsley. All views expressed here are Ross’ own, and not necessarily those also shared by Which?.

What do you think about degree apprenticeships? Do you get the best of both worlds or should you concentrate on studying first and then working after?


I agree that a mix of practice and theory is a good combination for education. None more so than in engineering. Better for student finances as well. For others, I think a first year working to build your finances followed by the suggested 2 year courses could make better use of student’s and institution’s time and resources. Do they really need 22 weeks out of formal university each year? I used mine for either a holiday, a temporary job, some revision. It all seems a bit of a waste, these days.

I expect that having university fees paid or subsidised will be the greatest attractions of degree apprenticeships. I will be interested to learn more about degree apprenticeships but am concerned that students may not be able to focus on their studies if they are spending a considerable amount of time working. A traditional sandwich course where students study for two years, do a one year placement and then return to university for a year has a great deal to commend it.

For useful subjects, like engineering and related disciplines, some students may find paid apprenticeships more appropriate and appealing than degree courses, if the latter must be self-funded (or debt funded).

Working in related fields may help to increase student’s motivations for learning challenging material, not least if they get to work alongside colleagues who have mastered the practical applications of the subjects concerned.

Students on many degree courses can also get similar opportunities, for example by working on summer projects and/or on courses where thesis projects can be undertaken in industry. However, those options usually provide less direct financial support over the full term of the student’s course.

It amazes me that studying in parallel with an apprenticeship is being discussed as if it is something new. I am an Engineer, now in the pre-retirement phase, and I studied through to degree level while I worked through my apprenticeship and beyond. It was pretty much the norm, the only variable being at what point you stopped your education – some were content with gaining technical qualifications rather than going on after that to gain a degree or PhD. The huge benefit is that you get to know ‘the industry’ in much greater depth, and this produces a more rounded and useful employee (well I would say that, wouldn’t I?). I also spent some time working within the UK University system, and that experience just served to compound my view.