Not Going to Uni: 15 Alternatives to University

A young man wearing an orange hoodie standing next to a wayfinding sign that lists the options university, apprenticeship, gap year and entry-level job

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Are you not sure what to do after your A-levels but 100% positive you don’t want to go to university?

Whatever your reasons – whether you don’t have the time or money to commit yourself to full-time study, you simply hate the idea of being in a classroom, or you just want to head straight into the world of work – not going to uni isn’t necessarily a bad thing (if you’re worried a lack of degree education will make you less hirable).

In fact, there are many other options you can explore to jump-start your career.

So, if you’re thinking about what you can do instead, take a look at these 15 university alternatives for some inspiration.

1. Enrol into an apprenticeship

Apprenticeships have a bad reputation, largely due to the lack of understanding of what’s on offer.

Contrary to popular belief, they’re not just for school leavers wanting to work in manual labour jobs. In reality, there are more than 250 different types of apprenticeship programmes, ranging from accounting to hairdressing and journalism to law, and are available to everyone regardless their age.

These programmes are a great way to gain a qualification while getting hands-on experience as well as a decent wage. And they’re probably the most lucrative alternative to university: research shows that apprentices can earn up to 270% more over their lifetime than their university graduate counterparts.

2. Join a school leaver programme

School leaver programmes are also often known as higher apprenticeships and don’t differ that much from than ‘normal’ apprenticeships. They provide A-level students the chance to gain practical experience while working towards a professional qualification, as well as earn a salary, though this varies from one programme to another.

They’re typically offered by FTSE 100 companies like Barclays, Royal Mail and Tesco, and can take anywhere between three and seven years to complete. As they’re viewed as the more ‘elite’ school leaver opportunities, competition is tough, and most employers require 104+ UCAS points either via A-levels or equivalent qualifications.

3. Take a gap year

Taking a gap year is a great way to buy yourself some more time if you’re unsure about your options after A-levels. There are many things you can do during a break from education, including:

  • Travel the world
  • Volunteer at a local charity or even abroad
  • Get a job and start saving some money (this is perfect if you do decide to eventually go to uni)

Ultimately, taking a gap year can help you develop the skills that employers want, raise your cultural awareness, and increase your work experience – and thus give your CV a huge boost.

4. Start your own business

Flexible hours, independence and the potential for a higher salary are just a few of the many benefits of self-employment.

Of course, there are downfalls to starting your own business, too: you won’t receive sick or holiday pay, your income can be irregular, and you could work much longer days than the typical employee. And that’s all in addition to the daily pressure of having the business’s failures and successes rest with you.

But if you’ve got a great idea, an entrepreneurial flare and a determination to succeed, you might just be the next Richard Branson.

5. Gain some work experience

Gaining some work experience will most definitely look good on your CV and might come in handy if you end up deciding to go to university. It shows employers that you’ve experienced a professional environment and that you took the initiative to start building your skillset, while it also provides you with the unique opportunity to confirm whether or not a potential career is suited to you.

Work placements can last anywhere between a couple of weeks to a whole year, and some might even pay (especially longer ones), though this will generally depend on the employer and the type of placement you undertake.

It’s a good idea to attend work experience fairs, where you’ll be able to connect with employers. You should also consider sending speculative applications, as well as searching for suitable placements on the internet.

6. Apply for an internship

Internships are similar to work placements in the sense that they help you build up your experience and develop your knowledge, as well as ‘test the waters’ to determine whether a specific industry is right for you. They tend to last a little longer than work placements, though.

Not all internships are paid, and many involve a lot of coffee and tea-making and errand-running, but they will nevertheless look great on your CV. They can be just as competitive as a ‘real’ job, and you’ll have to fill out an application and attend an interview.

7. Complete a sponsored degree

If your decision for not wanting to go to uni is financial-based, you might want to consider doing a sponsored degree. They’re, essentially, school leaver programmes, though they provide you with the opportunity to work towards obtaining a degree while being financially supported by a company, either with annual bursaries or a full salary.

You’ll need to research the different companies in your chosen industry offering such programmes, though it’s important to understand that you won’t really have a say in what university you attend or what course you do. You could attend university on a part-time basis (once a week, for example) while working for the employer, or you could attend university on a full-time basis and work for the employer during the holidays.

8. Gain a national vocational qualification (NVQ)

NVQs are work-based qualifications in England, Wales and Northern Ireland that are achieved though assessment and training. They’re designed to help people demonstrate their skills and prove their competency in their desired role or career path. There are five NVQ levels:

  • Level 1: Equivalent to GCSE (grades D-G) qualifications
  • Level 2: Equivalent to GCSE (grades A*-C) qualifications
  • Level 3: Equivalent to AS and A-level qualifications
  • Level 4: Equivalent to Higher National Diploma (HND) and bachelor’s degree qualifications
  • Level 5: Equivalent to master’s degree and doctorate qualifications

You’ll study at the level that’s right for your particular job role and level of experience, and progress accordingly. NVQs are generally studied part-time and can either be taken as a standalone qualification or as part of an apprenticeship.

9. Take an online course

Online courses offer you the opportunity to supplement your education, gain new knowledge and expand your skillset – all from the comfort of your home (and behind your PC screen, which is ideal if you’re not a very outgoing person).

There are literally millions of courses available on the internet, ranging from web design to event planning and email marketing. Depending on the course provider, and your chosen course, you’ll be able to gain a diploma or certification upon completion.

An added benefit is the fact that they usually take less time to complete than a degree course and are much cheaper in the long run.

Explore online courses on Coursera here

10. Get an entry-level job

The most obvious alternative to university is to head straight into the world of work – no detours, no diversions; just go straight into a job at the bottom and work your way to the top. For example, many large supermarket chains offer their staff the chance to train to a managerial position.

Many entry-level jobs don’t even have any minimum requirements other than your being physically and legally able to work. You simply need to be willing to stick it out and work hard to climb the ladder to the top.

11. Study a foundation course

If you have your eyes set on a specific academic course but you don’t meet the entry requirements for it, or if you’re not ready to fully commit to an undergraduate programme, you could consider taking a foundation year.

Essentially, a foundation year prepares you for an undergraduate degree through a year-long introductory programme. Not only will this allow you to build on your skills and knowledge but also increase your chances of getting into your dream school. Plus, it’s a great way to acclimate to college life, make new friends and get used to living away from home, without the added pressure of starting a three- to five-year degree.

There are numerous universities that now offer foundation years; however, do note that entry requirements may vary across each institutions.

12. Complete a traineeship

Similar to a foundation year, traineeships act as a gateway to apprenticeships. Entering a traineeship programme is especially useful if you don’t have the right qualifications and credentials required to be an apprentice.

Generally, these programmes can run from 6 weeks to 6 months, depending on the sector, and are designed for those aged between 16 and 24.

If you want to increase your job prospects and gain real-world experience in your chosen field or industry, this could be a good path to follow upon graduation. In fact, many trainees end up landing full-time jobs at the organisations where they completed their traineeships.

13. Work as a freelancer

Freelancing is a great option if you’re looking for a more flexible way to earn an income after graduation.

Whether you want to do this temporarily or as a long-term affair, freelancing your services is also a great way to test different roles while also building on your work experience.

You could consider freelancing gigs such as tutoring, translating, transcribing, content writing or graphic design, among others. There are numerous sites where you can find such opportunities, too, such as Upwork, Freelancer and Fiverr.

That said, some of these roles may require experience and qualifications, but based on your skills and abilities, you could still land a range of freelancing gigs.

14. Volunteer

If you’re passionate about a specific cause, then you could consider finding a full-time or part-time volunteering role within a non-governmental organisation. Not only is volunteering a great way to gain real work experience while contributing to a cause you care about, but it can also lead to a permanent paid role.

Indeed, while paid positions can be rare within NGOs and charities, the more time you spend cultivating your skills and establishing yourself within one, the more likely it is that you could eventually be considered for a full-time role there.

There are numerous volunteering opportunities out there; all you need to do is find an organisation whose mission matches your own interests, and contact them directly for available volunteering gigs.

15. Join the military

Joining the military is a common choice for school leavers looking for alternatives to university, and can be a great way to help you find purpose while also obtaining valuable skills. For example, in the US military, enlistees can earn college credits while also receiving specialised training and certificates. That, in turn, could help you apply to a university programme in the future, or enhance your job application for a civilian job.

On top of that, you’ll also receive a monthly salary and have access to free healthcare while serving. That said, military service is a serious commitment, so it’s important to conduct your own research, and weigh the pros and cons before making a decision.

Did you decide against going to uni and follow any of these alternative routes to a successful career? Do you have any advice that you’d like to share with other students preparing to leave school about the many different options available to them? Join the conversation below and let us know!


This article is an updated version of an earlier article originally published on 4 August 2017, and contains contributions by staff writer Melina Theodorou.