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These apprenticeships offer university-beating salaries (without £45k in student debt)

Female apprentice aircraft maintenance engineer work underneath jet engine
Engineering is one sector where apprentices can earn more than their graduate peers - Monty Rakusen/Digital Vision

Apprentices can land higher salaries than university graduates – and avoid being lumbered with £45,000 of student debt, according to new analysis.

Graduate salaries fall short of those of their peers who did apprenticeships in subjects including engineering and construction.

Not only do these apprentices out-earn their peers, they avoid being saddled with huge levels of debt and actually make money as they learn.

Among apprentices, those in the engineering sector – specialising in electricity generation, water provision or construction – were found to be taking home the highest pay, at £39,200 on average after five years. Graduates of engineering degree courses were earning £36,500 after the same period.

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Apprentices in building and construction made £34,700 after five years, exceeding the £32,395 median for those who had studied architecture, building and planning courses at university.

A similar story played out in agriculture (£31,300 versus £25,000) and media and communications (£29,400 versus £24,800).

Part of this may be down to the relative immediacy with which apprentices tend to find jobs, often with the same employer they trained under.

Over three-quarters of apprentices (77pc) were in sustained employment one year after completing their apprenticeship, compared to 62.5pc of graduates.

Apprentices made a median annual salary of £27,700 five years after qualifying in the 2020/21 tax year, according to data from the Department for Education (DfE). Graduates from degree programmes have comparable earnings of £29,900.

Money in the bank – and no debt

While university tuition costs £9,250 a year, apprenticeships are entirely funded by government and the employer, and offer a state-guaranteed minimum wage while learning.

Nick Hillman, director of the Higher Education Policy Institute, a think tank, said: “On wages, the returns to apprenticeships can be excellent. They are, in a sense, jobs with training attached. So by the end of the course, an apprentice could be experienced in work, have a degree and avoid being in debt.”

The minimum hourly rate that apprentices under 19 or in their first year are entitled to increased from £5.28 to £6.40 in April. Over the course of a year, deducting the mandatory minimum 20pc of time spent studying, this works out to just under £10,000.

For the average graduate in England, meanwhile, a degree now comes with an average outstanding student loan balance of £45,000. The latest “Plan 5” loans scheme lowered the threshold above which 9pc of salary goes towards paying off the debt to £25,000, and extended the term after which they are wiped out to 40 years.

Applying long-term forecasts by the Office for Budget Responsibility (OBR) – the interest charged by the Student Loans Company tied to the RPI – a typical graduate will be making repayments for 34 years.

Mr Hillman added: “However, data on earnings always takes a relatively short-time horizon – like five years – when a working life is likely to last for decades. A traditional university-based degree is designed, when it works well, to deliver lifelong transferable skills. As such, most graduates can expect decades of salary increases.

“One fear about some apprenticeships is that, while the salaries immediately afterwards are often good, especially in some specific areas, they may level off later in life. At the extreme, imagine for example that you’ve done an apprenticeship in an area of finance where humans come to be largely replaced by AI. At that point, the returns from the apprenticeship could fall hugely.”

Stephen Isherwood, of the Institute of Student Employers, a non-profit, said: “While financial considerations are important, it’s crucial students work out what pathway suits them and this will vary from career to career – apprenticeships aren’t always available at the level, in the sector, and in the location someone may want.”

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Spike in demand

University has become the default route into adulthood. There were roughly 480,000 undergraduate entrants in England in 2023 – up 23pc on 2013. This wasn’t always the case.

Apprentices reigned supreme in the not-too-distant past, with over half a million starting training each year a decade ago. While this tally has trickled down to around 350,000 since, a resurgence is under way.

Some 59pc of young people aged 13 to 17 are considering an apprenticeship, according to  Universities and Colleges Admissions Service (UCAS), and there was a 62.4pc uptick in search volumes year on year.

UCAS sought to explain why demand was so strong – yet starts remained lower than 10 years ago. With no centralised service, the application process was found to be far more burdensome than that for a degree. Just half of apprentices said their experience of applying was positive, compared with 90pc of university and college applicants. UCAS subsequently released a searchable tool for apprenticeships last October.

Among those who were interested in an apprenticeship but ultimately didn’t pursue one, the most common reason, cited by 61pc of respondents, was there weren’t any apprenticeships on offer near them.

A spokesman from the Institute for Apprenticeships and Technical Education (IfATE) said: “More and more people are waking up to the opportunities apprenticeships offer and how they suit many learners.

“Demand is currently outstripping supply – we would like to see even more apprenticeships being made available by employers, they are a fantastic way to get into work.”

A spokesman for Universities UK, an advocacy group for higher education institutions, said: “Studying at university is valuable far beyond earning potential for graduates. However, even when looking at income alone, going to university is still a good investment, with graduates over £100,000 better off across their lifetime – even with taxes and loan repayments taken into account.

“This data is limited and does not reflect the substantial increase in earnings as graduates progress in their careers after establishing themselves in their first five to 10 years.”

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