Progression – which way to go after Sixth Form? University or an apprenticeship?

An interview with Catherine Benbow, Head of Sixth Form & Careers Advisor, Carol Byrne.

By Abbie Clarkson

If you are considering your options for when you leave Sixth Form, going to university might be right for you. I spoke with Head of Sixth Form, Catherine Benbow, to find out more about this option.

How many Rainford students go to university?
We’ve always had a high number of students choosing university, although more are choosing apprenticeships due to more variety being available. Last year 76% of Y13 leavers went to university. 25% of those went to a university ranked in the top third in the UK and 19% went to a Russell Group university. More than ever applied to Liverpool and Manchester based universities simply to try and keep costs down.

What is a Russell Group university?
The Russell Group universities are 24 UK universities that attract a lot of funding due to their research status – this means they often have the excellent facilities and teaching staff. They are often considered the ‘best’, but that doesn’t mean you should discount others. Loughborough University, for example, isn’t a member of the Russell Group, but is an excellent choice for studying Sport.

How difficult is it to get into a Russell Group university compared to any other university?
Russell Groups often have high entry requirements, making their courses competitive. However, we encourage our students to set their sights high. As a result, 50% of our students received offers from Russell Group universities this year and last year 19% ended up taking up a place. That is much higher than the 12% national average.

What do universities look for in an application?
Generally, they expect to see enthusiasm for your chosen subject, which includes knowledge developed through relevant independent study and wider reading. They are also looking for YOU – make sure your personality and character shines through. Given that university admissions tutors often have hundreds of personal statements to sift through every day – they also appreciate originality. Try to avoid clichés and generic statements.

Are there exams, besides A-Level and GCSEs, that you need to be accepted into university?
Some courses require you to pass entrance exams. Also, many of our students study BTECs, which in the past were less attractive to universities, but not anymore. The new BTECs are much more challenging. Many universities are actually stating that they often prefer students to have at least one BTEC to demonstrate their range of skills. Even Oxford/Cambridge have stated that BTECs will now be considered for some of their courses. Extended Project Qualification (EPQ) is also a welcome qualification for universities. This demonstrates a genuine interest in your topic, as well as the ability to study independently, as an undergraduate is expected to do. It can also give you up to 28 UCAS points, which really helps with points offers from university.

How do you suppose someone would go about creating a shortlist of courses/universities?
Choosing a university can be daunting – especially with £9000 tuition fees – the decision has to be right. Make use of all the advice coming from the Sixth Form team during assemblies, employability days, tutorials and one-to-ones. I recommend going on Open Days during Year 12, as well as the Higher Educa9on conference that we take Y12
students on in June. Students should also use the search tools on Unifrog to compare courses, universities and entry requirements against your own search criteria.
What information do you suggest people find out about their courses before university?
I would encourage students to ‘think backwards’. What career is this course for? If you don’t know – speak to a member of the Sixth Form team or our Careers Advisor – Carol Byrne (in college every Wednesday). Once you answer this question, you can start considering other details like university ranking, location (home or away), campus or city based, student satisfaction, sandwich course (a year of your course spent in industry or abroad –
this can be fantastic for gaining that experience as well as the qualification!) All of this information
can be found on Unifrog.
How do you make sure you have found the right course for the future?
Start researching early! A last minute decision could cost you a lot of time and money. Make sure your course choice is part of a longer term plan. Remember – you can always defer your place for a year and gain some travel or work experience before committing to that course.
Is applying to Oxford or Cambridge any different to applying to other universities?
The process is the same, but you can only apply to one or the other. They are also different in that they run collegiate system, meaning that you apply to a specific college within the university, most of which are sixth form sized, giving a much greater sense of community. You will also have to sit admissions tests for Oxbridge, which requires a lot of preparation. Your application and interview will also be much more academically focused than
anywhere else. For further information on applying to Oxbridge, see the guide on our website or visit the ‘Know-how’ page on Unifrog. Do all universities have admissions tests? No, but some courses do. For example, if you want
to study Medicine, you will have to sit the UKCAT or BMAT. If you want to study Law, you will sit the LNAT. There are quite a few more, but you can check the ‘next steps’ section of our website for more information. These tests are your responsibility to research and book – you don’t always sit them here in college. The registration date for these tests is usually early in Year 13.
How do UCAS points work?
You get UCAS points for all Level 3 qualification (A Levels, BTECs, EPQ). Some universities will make you an offer based on grades (AAB, for example) or some will make you an offer based on points (112 points for example). You can check your points on the UCAS calculator

Why do you recommend people go to open days/ fairs at universities?
You wouldn’t buy a car for £45,000 without test driving it, so why wouldn’t you do the same for your education? An Open Day gives you the chance to meet your tutors, see the accommodation, experience the campus and visualise yourself there. As well as providing you with information, it’s a great motivator to have that mental image when you’re up to your ears in coursework and exams.
How much will it cost me to go to university?
If you stay at home and go to a local university, the average tuition fees cost £21,000 for a 3 year course. If you live away and want to take out a maintenance loan on top of the tuition fee loan, it can cost on average £45,000 for a 3 year course. If you study in London, the same 3 year course can cost you up to £65,000.

Should the cost of going to university put me off?

In my opinion, it shouldn’t. It is expensive, but if you know it is going to get you to where you want to be, then it is the right decision for you. On average, graduates tend to make over £100,000 more in their working life than non-graduates. Obviously, in some professions you will make considerably more than that. Student finance is designed in such a way that repaying the debt is not as daunting as it first seems. Graduates will not begin to repay their loans until they earn more than £21,000 per year. So if you never earn that amount, you never pay back your loan (this should not be a goal though people! ) Once you are earning £22,000+, you will only ever pay back 9% of anything you earn ABOVE £21,000, which is taken before it even enters your bank account. In real terms, this works out as £30 per month if you are earning £25,000 a year, for example. Any remaining debt is wiped out after 30 years, meaning over 70% of graduates never actually pay off the entire amount of their student loan. Of course though, it is still a lot of money to consider, especially when some Higher Apprenticeships can offer a degree level qualification but will pay YOU whilst you study! Check out our student finance second on the website for further information.

An interview with Carol Byrne, Careers Advisor with Career Connect

What is an apprenticeship? 
An apprenticeship is a job with training and pay different levels of apprenticeship. Intermediate (Level 2) Advanced Level 3) Higher (Level 4) Degree (Level 5/6)
What are the benefits and disadvantages of an apprenticeship?
Advantages are that it is a job designed to lead to a permanent position once successfully completed. Disadvantages are that the applicant needs to be job ready and committed to the organisation for a number of years. Also, the pay can be quite low, but this increases when the apprenticeship has been completed or when the apprentice reaches the age of 19 years.
How do people apply for an apprenticeship?
Apprenticeships are mainly advertised on but there are other websites. Sometimes organisations, especially if is a large company e.g. Jaguar, United Utilities will have the vacancies on their own website as well. Vacancies are updated on Unifrog every 24 hours.
Are there any certain entry requirements?
Entry requirements are determined by the employer and will vary according to the type and level of job. Companies look for reliability, hard work, an understanding of the company and the commitment to be a successful apprentice.
Is it more difficult to secure a place in an apprenticeship compared to university?
It can be more difficult to secure an apprenticeship as it is competitive, but some university courses are also very competitive.

Can people apply for apprenticeships even after they have been to university? 
Apprenticeships go up to degree level. After a degree, applicants would normally apply for a graduate vacancy. There are more and more apprenticeships being advertised with universities for degree level apprenticeships  where the company would pay the university fees and the apprentice would complete a degree at the same time as working and being paid.
Are apprenticeships more beneficial in certain types of work, compared to university degrees?
Some jobs require an apprenticeship e.g. construction, motor vehicle engineering.

What is a typical week like as an apprentice?

There will be a framework in place which will vary depending on the apprenticeship and a training provider/college will ensure the apprentice is achieving qualification. There isn’t a typical week really. An apprenticeship in catering or hairdressing would be very different to an apprenticeship in business administration or computing, for example, because of different hours/shifts and work environment.
What do apprentices get paid?
These rates are for the National Living Wage and the National Minimum Wage. The rates change every April.
– Apprentices are entitled to the apprentice rate if they’re: 1 ) aged under 19 or 2) aged 19 or over and in the first year of their apprenticeship. Example: An apprentice aged 22 in the first year of their apprenticeship is entitled to a minimum hourly rate of £3.70.
– Apprentices are entitled to the minimum wage for their age if they are both: 1) aged 19 or over and 2) have completed the first year of their apprenticeship. Example: An apprentice aged 22 who has completed the first year of their apprenticeship is entitled to a minimum hourly rate of £7.38.
Are there many apprenticeships out there? How do we find out about them?
The Unifrog search tool updates with all apprenticeships across the country every 24 hours. ( There are a lot of apprenticeships across the country. The official place to search for apprenticeships is

How do apprenticeships compare to universities? Do they make the applicants more employable afterwards?
As apprenticeships are actual jobs, applicants don’t need to worry about getting a job when they complete their apprenticeship. They may also be more employable if they want to move to a different company as they will have significant work experience. As mentioned earlier there are also degree level apprenticeships which are delivered by universities.