What’s better: an I.T Degree or an I.T Apprenticeship?

For a long time the main educational path for future software developers was to go through the traditional, fool-proof University route. In fact, those who were fortunate enough to know exactly what career they wanted whilst still in school would pick the relevant A-levels and start tailoring their education to optimise their prospects of being accepted by their dream University. 

Apprenticeships are not as widely promoted as University degrees in many secondary and grammar schools, which may be why they are often not the first choice of many school leavers. There are plenty of people out there who may still be simply unaware of the alternatives to university study and only start exploring different educational pathways that are available later on in life. 

There is no doubt that both apprenticeships and university degrees are a fantastic way of getting qualified in your I.T field of choice. What may be ideal for some – may not appeal to others at all, which is why the path you choose to educate yourself is highly individual. The important thing to remember is that there is no right or wrong way of getting qualified. 

For those that are considering their pathway, we have compiled a number of comparisons between Apprenticeships and University degrees that we hope will help you to come to a well informed conclusion regarding which pathway might be the better option for you. 

Degree vs. Apprenticeship 

The main difference between a University degree and an Apprenticeship is that a degree is theory based. The majority of your degree will be based in class where you will be presented with key information and expected to study it further in your own time. An Apprenticeship however, is a work placement complemented by a one or two days per week where you will attend College to cover theory relevant to your placement. 

Another key difference, that may define whether you should pick one over the other, is that Universities boast a huge variety of degrees allowing you to explore multiple different areas of a core subject. This gives students an opportunity to develop a well rounded knowledge of the I.T field. For example, somebody studying a University degree in Computer Science may cover programming, web design, user experience design, and other technologies. This means a fresh University graduate has a plethora of different options in terms of employment, and can choose which field they would like to specialise in or focus on. 

Apprenticeships are often a lot more targeted from the start – depending on the type of apprenticeship that you undertake you might find that the course materials and your job duties are not as diverse as they would be when studying for a degree qualification. As much as the theory you cover during an apprenticeship will prepare you for work within the field, it can tend to be a lot more focused around the tasks you will be expected to carry out within your placement.

This does not mean that qualifications gained through an apprenticeship are any less valuable – people who know exactly what they want to do and what interests them will be given an opportunity to progress in the exact field of their choice during an apprenticeship, instead of spending a year or multiple on covering theory in areas that they might find irrelevant, or uninteresting. 

We have compiled a useful table below, so that you can easily compare some of the other main differences between university and apprenticeship study:

University  Apprenticeship
  • Can cost up to £40,000 in the UK
  • Completely Free
  • Theory focused learning allows you to explore different areas within your core subject
  • Theory is covered alongside practical on-the-job learning, and is more tailored to your role.
  • Hundreds of undergraduate courses available 
  • Apprenticeships in I.T are plentiful but can be hard to find in other fields
  • 3-4 years long
  • Usually 2 years long, some Higher Level apprenticeships can last up to 4 years. 
  • Require you to find extra ways of making income, or rely on a maintenance grant
  • Pay you for every hour that you work in your placement, as well as a minimum of 20% of the time you spend in college 
  • If graduated, you will meet the minimum educational requirement for the majority of jobs in your field.
  • As there are different types of apprenticeships, some may provide you with a Level 2 or 3 certificate upon completion, whilst others can go all the way up to university degree level. 
  • Will usually offer a placement year to help you get experience.
  • You will be gaining work experience for the entire duration of your apprenticeship 
  • Heavily focused on coursework, examinations and independent study.
  • You will be assessed based on coursework, however your workload will be adapted to your working hours.
  • You receive a nationally recognised qualification endorsed by your university
  • Your final qualification will be endorsed by a nationally recognised awarding body. 
  • ‘University Experience’ – many find that as much as university study can be stressful, it is socially rewarding, with plenty of clubs and extracurricular programmes available.
  • You will find that the majority of your time will be spent in work, and the amount of external social activities you may take advantage of will be dependent on your employer. 

Based on the key differences above, it is safe to assume that University is usually (but not always) best suited to young school leavers who may prioritise learning abroad or meeting new friends as part of their educational journey. There are also certain fields out there that simply do not offer apprenticeships and may require an individual to go through the University route in order to get qualified. This can commonly be seen within science/medical fields where it would be unsafe to allow someone to work on tasks that may endanger someones’ health. 

Apprenticeships, on the other hand, have one key focus – quick absorption of new skills in order to improve employability. The majority of your apprenticeship experience will be spent on trying to learn as many practical skills as you can from your work mentor in order for you to become proficient at the job. This will be supplemented with the theory and assignments you will be covering in College.

Financial Obligations

The debt free aspect of apprenticeships is often a large part of what draws people in. With Universities across Northern Ireland costing around £4,000 a year in tuition fees alone, and Universities based in England costing up to £10,000 per year many graduates end up in student finance debt for the majority of their lives. The UK student finance repayment laws are still a lot more optimal than generic bank loans – offering low interest rates, and flexible payment plans where graduates are only expected to start paying off their debt once their income is over the threshold amount specific to their payment plan. 

Those who don’t want to take the plunge in terms of financial obligations, and are looking to get stuck straight into work, may find that an apprenticeship would be the perfect alternative for them. Higher-Level Apprenticeships can run all the way up to level 8 (equivalent to a postgraduate degree) and are completely free! In fact you will be paid for your time in work and college, meaning you can easily support yourself while you work towards your qualification and gain work experience. 


If you would like to study at a university part-time to remain in full-time employment you can expect it to take around 6 years to fully complete your degree qualification. This is where an Apprenticeship definitely shines – as you can complete the same level of education over the course of 4 years, whilst learning on the job and making a full time salary, assuming you are completing a Level 6 (undergraduate degree equivalent) Apprenticeship.

Further Job prospects 

Some of the leading Universities out there including our local Queens University Belfast and Ulster University, both with a reputation for extremely strict entry requirements and high quality of teaching, won’t go unnoticed by employers. Graduates with a degree from QUB may be perceived as being more capable due to the amount of work and dedication that goes into full time study at this institution. 

All apprenticeships must be run in collaboration with certified Further Education Colleges or Universities, and provide you with a qualification from a nationally recognised awarding body. It is commonly understood and accepted that a Level 5 (HND) qualification is equivalent to a foundation degree. Therefore if you decide to undertake a Level 5 apprenticeship you will also be gaining the same certificate upon completion. 

Attitudes and perspectives as to what employers want from entry level graduates have shifted over the past decade. Qualifications are important but they don’t define an applicant as much as they used to. You may be surprised to hear that many employers are starting to consider experience, demonstrable passion, willingness to take on feedback, and collaborate as well as transferable skills to be equally important to qualifications. 

This is particularly prominent in the I.T field – where theory can be hard to comprehend until utilised in a practical setting. Many graduate software developers have to look for graduate level roles, where they can apply the subject within a practical environment, whilst having  to work as part of a team and take directions. Because an apprentice does exactly that from the very start of their placement, many employers may appreciate their additional experience in the workplace and value it more. 

Don’t forget –  there is no ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ way of getting qualified and entering into the I.T sector. This extremely diverse field is probably one of the most progressive out there, famously open to all forms of education including independent study. However if you are keen on gaining experience and qualifications as fast as possible to jump onto that career ladder and start climbing up – we would definitely encourage you to consider an apprenticeship to minimise costs and get a taste of the industry early on!

Check out our top 6 I.T related apprenticeships currently open for applications here