We've spent the last two weeks questioning whether university is still working for Britain's young people. For many, the debt and uncertainty that come with doing a degree are extremely unattractive. But if you decide not to be a student, what other options are there, and do you miss out on the much-fabled "university experience"? We caught up with the 20-somethings who took four different routes into work, to ask them how they feel about their decision.
Until capitalism came along, apprenticeships were basically a way for older bakers to teach younger bakers how to knead dough, while only paying them in bread. Now they're a fully mandated government scheme that lets you work, earn, and get a qualification all at the same time. Stefan Price, 17, is doing a social media and digital marketing apprenticeship in Liverpool.
VICE: What made you decide to do an apprenticeship?
Stefan: Before I started my apprenticeship, I had no idea what one was. Just out of curiosity one day, I was looking on the internet about marketing and marketing jobs, then I came across a social media and digital marketing apprenticeship. It is basically as good as they make it sound, you can learn from experts and get paid while doing it. These reasons just made it the obvious decision.
Are you learning loads or do you ever feel you are basically cheap labour?
People ask this all the time and the answer is simple. Apprenticeships are not cheap labour, no matter how people try to spin them off like this. I get a qualification, expert knowledge and work-based knowledge, all for free, while getting a wage. You can't put a price on education and knowledge. We all have to start somewhere.
Do you feel like you missed out on the "university experience", getting smashed and sleeping around?
Not at all, if anything, the apprenticeship life is even better. We get paid, so every penny is ours to spend on whatever we want: clothes, holidays, nights out, anything. There was always a running joke in the office that I was "living like a king" because I'd get ASOS packages delivered every week. Every lunchtime I'd treat myself to something. I was always the envy of my mates. I've booked a two-week cruise around the Caribbean in September – I haven't missed out on a thing.
A cruise! So no regrets about university then? You made the right decision?
The biggest thing is probably living away from home - every young person wants that. Before uni, it seems like an amazing thing, having your own place, being able to do whatever the hell you want, but in reality, that soon ends. Who'd make my bed every day, wash all my clothes, cook all my meals? I rely on my mum for all this, and I definitely couldn't live without her at the minute.
Stefan. You need to start making your own bed. And thanks.
The army used to offer a way out for people wanting get out of their home town. Now, so all their adverts say, it's much more than that. You can be paid to study, get a decent home, travel abroad and be branded a hero at the end of it. We caught up with Jonny Sherwood-Eames, 28, an officer based in Newcastle, to find out whether skipping uni and going straight to Sandhurst suited him.
VICE: What made you decide to join the army?
Jonny: I left school with A-levels and I had two confirmed places at Leeds and Northumbria. I had decided to take a gap year and it was during that time that I chose to go into the army instead. I thought about what I want from life. I've always been very sporty and liked to travel and this paid well.
Do you feel like you missed out on the "uni experience"? I can't imagine there are a lot of drunken shenanigans at Sandhurst.
Probably. I couldn't comment on uni life, having not been. I've got a lot of friends who went to uni who had a cracking time, but the opportunities the army has given me have been fantastic – I've been all over the world, I've never been out of employment.
Do you think you missed out on the carefree side of uni life? The lie-ins, the messy rooms, the lack of structure?
We get 38 days leave a year, and having done operation tours that last months, you accrue time off, so I've had fantastic holidays. Plus room inspections stop once you've finished training, so your situation becomes very independent. You have your own space where you can relax. You're certainly not stood to attention at the bottom of your bed every day.
If I had to go back and say to myself go to uni or join the army, I would do it the way I've done it. It's the best of both worlds. I've been paid well and I now own my own house, so I'm in a position to study more if I want to.
START UP LOANS
If you've got a good idea for a business but no capital, the government offer start-up loans for first-time entrepreneurs. They operate in a similar way to student loans, with fixed interest rates and an easy application process. They also come with free mentoring to help your business get started. We spoke to Sonya Kumar, 21, who runs her own Indian catering company for private and corporate events in west London.
VICE: Did you consider going to university?
Sonya: I did think about it and teachers were putting a lot of pressure on me to go, but I didn't really want to do it. Studying for another three years just wasn't my cup of tea. I wanted to control my own finances and be my own boss so I set up my own business and came across start-up loans through a website I found online.
But do you feel like you missed out on the "uni experience"?
Oh yeah. I've definitely grown up quickly. I think about that when I look at my people from my year and where they are right now. It doesn't help to see others going out, partying at freshers' things, and there's me just trying to work my ass off to get the business going. It can make you depressed. I think you become more reserved than everyone else. You have to accept that it's a different lifestyle and it changes you at the same time. But I look at them and I've got more of a professional manner. They're going through things that I've already learned.
Do you regret your decision?
Yes and no. I have regrets, but then, not everyone has got something good out of uni. They might regret getting drunk, sleeping around and stuff like that.
JUST GET A JOB
Transitioning from school student to worker bee may actually be easier than trying to get a job post-university at the same time as all the other recent graduates. We spoke to Tom Barclay, 30, from Somerset who's now a wholesale manager for an organic drinks company.
VICE: Did you consider going to university?
Tom: I couldn't find anything I wanted to get into debt for, so I looked for a job. A lot of my friends did, but I just didn't.
What was it like when they all went off to study?
Every night at uni sounds like the best night ever, but I don't know if it's really like that. I think about the people you meet through uni and what I've missed out on, but then I've made my bed.
You've got a good job now. Does anyone care that you don't have a degree?
A lot of jobs that I've applied for in the past say you have to have a degree. They won't even give you a chance, even when you have experience, even if you're overqualified. That's just how it is.
So do you have any regrets?
If I'd gone, I would definitely have embraced the lifestyle, and that does play on my mind quite a bit - the experience part, rather than getting educated and being in debt - but maybe it feels like it would've been better than it might have actually been.