Career Paths – Post 16 Options: Alternatives to a Full-Time University Course

Have you considered alternative choices than going straight to university after 6th form? Here are some of the alternative, post-16 options available to you, to help you to make an informed choice:


Apprenticeships give you the opportunity to combine work experience, training and further qualifications with a wage. While this wage may be lower than for other workers, the government does set a minimum wage for apprentices which can increase after the first year of your apprenticeship if you are over the age of 19. Generally, apprenticeships may last anywhere between one and five years. The level of training varies between apprenticeships:

  • Level 2 (or intermediate) apprenticeships are equivalent to GCSE level
  • Level 3 (or advanced) apprenticeships are equivalent to A Level
  • Level 4 and 5 (or higher) apprenticeships are equivalent to a foundation degree (discussed below)
  • Level 6 or 7 (or degree) apprenticeships are equivalent to a university degree.

Here is a handy A to Z of government recognised apprenticeships. Check out the level 4 and above ones.

Foundation Degree (or HND)

Foundation degrees (also known as Higher National Diplomas or HNDs) are worth 240 UCAS points, or two-thirds of a Bachelor’s degree. They are available in a wide variety of different subjects and involve work experience or on-the-job training. Foundation degrees and HNDs may be offered by colleges, which can make travel options or staying in the family home easier for some students. You can choose to study for more credits later, to achieve a full Bachelor’s degree. Because they are counted as further education courses, both foundation degrees and HND may require you to pay tuition fees, which will vary according to the course and where in the UK you are studying. Student loans may be available to help with these.

Securing an Entry-Level Job

You may have decided that you are ready to enter the world of full-time work. If so, try to find a job that will lead to future opportunities, or research companies that have a reputation for helping employees ‘grow’. Getting a job could help your self-confidence and provide some much needed financial support.

Self-Employment & Setting up Your Own Business

You may have some really good business ideas, or have a hobby that has started to bring in some money. Maybe a family member or a friend would consider investing time or money in your idea. There are business loans or some grants available. Charities may also consider helping. Each year, The Prince’s Trust help thousands of 18 to 30 year olds in the UK to get their businesses up and running.

A Gap Year

A gap year can be more than an extended holiday! It could be a year out to work, to save some money or gain experience. It could be working abroad, or volunteering for a charity. You may just feel you need a break from academic study. If you have a gap year and are sure that you want to go to university, you should still apply, then ask to defer for a year. Make sure you tell the university on your application that this is your plan and why you want to do this. If your gap year will help you develop skills related to your course, be sure to mention it in your personal statement.

School Leaver Programmes

These are a new type of apprenticeship aimed at students leaving year 13. Some of the larger UK firms are investing in these programmes, which involve work placements at the company, combined with blocks of study. This is not the right choice for anyone unsure of their career path, and is best suited to students that know what they want to do or who they want to work for. Competition for these roles is often high and you must show how you will be an asset to the company investing time and money in your future.

Work Experience

Many students leave university with a good Bachelor’s degree but find it difficult to get a graduate job. This can be because they have very little work experience, either of work in general, or in the relevant field. Students whose career choice is popular, or is in an area with a limited number of positions, often struggle to find a suitable job. Gaining valuable work experience, either paid or unpaid, could make a big difference. Some companies will agree to give you an unpaid trial, with a job at the end. You might like to consider work experience for other reasons, such as helping you choose between two careers.

Internships (Paid or Unpaid)

An internship is similar to work experience, where it offers students time in a working environment in a specific industry, related to the student’s chosen field of study. You might be thinking, ‘Why would I do an unpaid internship if I can get a paid one?’ Well, some internships are a mandatory part of a degree course and act as on-the-job training. Others may offer you a way to complete a course in a different country and replace high fees. An example of this may be a diving instructor course on a Caribbean island. Yes, these placements do exist, but they are hard work. You will need to be committed and willing to work hard, for long hours.

Sponsored Degrees

Some employers will sponsor your degree. This means they will pay for your course and give you a salary whilst you study. It may mean that you work for the company during holidays, or for some of the week. You may be able to attend university for ‘chunks’ of time or you may study remotely. The armed forces often offer these types of degrees for their future leaders and on completion of your degree, you will start your forces career as an officer. Competition for these sponsored degrees can be very fierce.

National Vocational Qualifications (NVQs)

NVQs are work-based qualifications. Level five is the equivalent of a HND or foundation degree, with level six equating to a Bachelor’s and level seven a Master’s degree. NVQs can provide a work-based, flexible route into your chosen field. Employers often support staff working towards NVQs as it means they are gaining nationally recognised qualifications but are not spending as much time away from work.

University Part-Time or with the Open University

A few decades ago, the only way to study part-time or on a remote course was with the Open University. Now, most universities offer part-time modular courses with remote learning. This means you could fit your studies around a job or other commitments. It could also mean you have less student debt, but it will take longer to gain your degree. Modular courses are often taken by mature students who may have other financial or family commitments but, of course, you could study for them at the end of year 13 too.

Didn’t Get the Grades You Were Expecting in Year 13?

Try not to worry if your grades weren’t what you were expecting. You can always repeat year 13 at your school, or transfer to a college. Some of the options you have been shown today may still be suitable if you’ve received lower than expected grades. So before you rush into clearing, have a good look at the alternatives first.

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