Degree or not degree? MM’s guide to the alternatives to university on A-level results day

By Joe Dalton

Degree or not degree? That is the question Manchester’s A-level students are asking after results day.

MM look at some of the alternatives to university that are on offer, from accountancy apprenticeships to fast-track journalism courses.

As thousands of young people across Greater Manchester nervously await their A-level results this week and obscene hikes in tuition fees price many out of university courses, it seems the perfect time to prove there are better options available.

There are a vast number of alternatives out there including apprenticeships and professional courses offering industry qualifications which can open doors a degree never will and make far more financial sense.

Take journalism for instance. There are over 70 UK universities offering journalism degrees and yet, despite costing your a fair whack to complete these courses, many may not give graduates the core skills demanded by editors (such as 100 words per minute shorthand) and will therefore leave them with little hope of landing a job afterwards.

Natasha David-Hilton, 20, left school with good A-levels and the ambition to become a journalist. After initially toying with the idea of a journalism degree, she discovered the possibility of doing a fast-track course tailored toward the demands of the industry for a fraction of the cost.

After completing her NCTJ training, Natasha landed a job as a features writer with Cavendish press agency and has never looked back.

“Deciding not to go to university was one of the best decisions I ever made,” she said.

“When I started applying to jobs, one of the things a few editors said was how they never went to university either and that they liked the fact that I hadn’t.

“It’s worked out perfectly, it’s funny to think that this time last year I was devastated debating gap year options but now I already have a job and without any student debt.”

Lexi Hamer, 20, from Rochdale, also prospered from opting out of university. Lexi’s teachers at Bacup & Rawtenstall Grammar School encouraged her to do a degree after she attained five A’s at A-level. But when a representative from Cassons Chartered Accountants gave a talk at the school Lexi realised it might not be worthwhile.

“I didn’t want to get into debt so I found a good, professional firm and trained on the job,” she said.

“It also means that I will already have a lot of experience as well as my qualifications. If all goes well I’ll be sitting my finals when I’m 22 but if I’d been at university I wouldn’t have qualified until I was 25 or 26.”

And Lexi is reaping the benefits of her choice as she won the prestigious Manchester Chartered Accountants and Manchester Chartered Accountant Students Society prize for the highest marks in Financial Accounting earlier this year.

“I’ve been able to apply the training straight to my work at Cassons.  It makes a big difference to actually use what you’ve learnt straight away,” Lexi added.

Ria Alder, from Sale, chose to forego university and pursue her accountancy career through an apprenticeship following a visit to a training agency called Intraining during her final year of A-levels.

Intraining specialise in government funded apprenticeships for all fields of work and they managed to secure a place for Ria at Montpelier Chartered Accountants just a month after she finished sixth form.

“There were actually a lot of reasons I decided against university,” Ria explained.

“I found I could become a chartered accountant two or three years quicker by doing an apprenticeship. Then obviously there is the cost — I didn’t like the idea of being poor all the time and having no routine in my life.

“But apart from those things, I guess that with the recession, employers will be looking for candidates with the much needed experience because if everyone applied for the same job with the same degree what else could set them apart?”

There is no doubt that university has its merits, but it’s also clear that if you’re hoping to pursue a professional career, there are other — often better — ways to reach that goal.

And Ria’s advice to those students anxiously tearing open their results envelopes tomorrow: “I would say don’t go to university for the wrong reasons like if you’re just unsure what else to do or all your friends are doing it.

“If the course that you’re planning to study is vocational, it’s worthwhile researching other possible routes of starting your career instead of a degree because it’s likely to be faster, cheaper and more useful if you’re learning on the job with an apprenticeship —and you get paid instead of paying a fortune for it at uni!”  

You can visit, and for more information on apprenticeships and other alternatives to university.

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