Options at 18

A different Route


'Options at 18' looks at the choices you have to make in Years 12 and 13. It covers the advantages and disadvantages of going into higher education, or of starting work (including through Intermediate Level Apprenticeships and Advanced Level Apprenticeships, and self-employment).

At the age of 18, you have two main options. You can go into higher education, or into employment, including becoming your own boss.

If you decide to go for higher education, you have a third possibility - to take a year's break (or 'gap year') between leaving school and starting to study.

School Leaver Programs

Higher Education

The benefits of higher education

Higher education includes degrees, foundation degrees, Diplomas of Higher Education (DipHEs) and Higher National Diplomas (HNDs).

Some people benefit hugely from higher education. Most importantly, you can only enter some careers if you have a degree, such as doctor, dentist, Chartered Engineer and librarian.

Higher education can be a very positive experience. Universities and colleges have all the resources to help you develop an excellent understanding of your chosen subject.

Also, higher education can help you to develop personally and socially. For example, you can leave home to go to university. You might jump at the chance to increase your freedom, to become more independent and selfsufficient, to see a different part of the country and make new friends.

Universities often have excellent social and sporting facilities, so this could be your chance to get really involved in a new hobby.

Depending on your course, you may get the opportunity to travel or study abroad for some time. With careful thought and planning, you can get the most out of the periods between terms (vacations) too.

You can do something that will broaden your horizons, and give you the skills and experience that employers look for.

However, higher education is by no means the best option for everyone. It could be better to develop specific skills that are particularly useful in the career you want to enter.

It might make sense for you to find the right job and then study for work-related or professional qualifications while you are in work.

Diploma of Higher Education courses

Many courses are equivalent to the first two years of a degree, and some guarantee that successful students can go on to join the third year of a degree course. A DipHE can be one of the requirements for entering a career.

Foundation degrees

Foundation degrees are employment-related higher education courses. They are available at some universities and higher education colleges. You can also study a university foundation degree at some further education colleges.

Full-time and part-time foundation degrees are available, and there can also be flexible study methods, such as distance learning.

Completing a foundation degree can enable you to enter a related degree course.

Higher National Diplomas (HNDs)

HNDs are vocational qualifications. They are usually full-time courses, taking two years to complete. Having completed an HND, you might be able to join the second year of a degree course, or the third year in some cases.


If you opt for a degree, you'll be able to choose from the following:

  • Studying subjects singly or in combination. Some universities offer modular degrees that allow you the freedom and flexibility to design a large part of your course.
  • Studying a subject for its own sake or because it has work-related relevance. For example, most arts degrees don't train you directly for a specific job.
  • Applying for a sandwich degree. This is a degree combined with a year's work experience. An employer, for example, in an engineering or science-related industry, might sponsor you.
  • Studying abroad for part of the time. Remember, this doesn't just apply to language degrees; a number of science and arts degrees provide this opportunity.

Examine your motives

Before you decide to apply for a course, it's a good idea to ask yourself a few questions:

  • Will higher education help me in my career?
  • Do I really want to study this subject in depth?
  • Is it completely my own choice, or am I being influenced by my teachers or parents?
  • Am I prepared to be very careful with money? How will I feel if people I know get jobs straight after they leave school and start earning good money?
  • How do I feel about leaving home and the friends who went to school with me?

Do your homework

If you decide that higher education is for you, then you must research all the possibilities. This means:

  • Looking at university websites to check that the courses offered will meet your needs.
  • Visiting as many campuses as you can and talking to students there.

Job availability for graduates

The number of job opportunities for graduates depends on the health of the economy. When the economy is doing well, opportunities generally increase, and the reverse is true when the economy is not doing so well.

Generally, graduates are less likely to be unemployed over their lifetime than non-graduates.

A graduate's chance of getting a job depends on factors such as their degree subject, their personal qualities and skills, and the demand for graduates from different sectors of the economy.

Generally, employers will look beyond the degree, focusing on 'soft skills' and personal qualities, such as communication skills, willingness to learn, self-motivation and dependability.

You'll need to demonstrate to employers that your education, work and life experiences have helped you to develop and use these skills.


Some people prefer to start work rather than go into higher education.

However, you should be careful not to let attractive wages tempt you into a job that won't give you long-term career development. You should think about whether or not an employer will give you training and encourage you to develop your skills and knowledge.


Another way to 'earn as you learn' is an Intermediate Level Apprenticeship or Advanced Level Apprenticeship.

Intermediate Level Apprenticeships and Advanced Level Apprenticeships cover a very wide range of areas. Just some are:

  • agriculture
  • marketing
  • engineering
  • travel services

A small number of Higher Apprenticeships have been introduced. These include qualifications at a level equivalent to higher education. You could gain a recognised professional qualification.

For information about Apprenticeships, please see the Apprenticeships website in 'Further Information'.


Self-employment is another possibility. However, you shouldn't decide on this option without a lot of thought and planning - it's likely to mean lots of hard work and long hours.

You'll need a good business idea, as well as the skills and knowledge to run your own business. You'll probably also need a source of finance to help you set up in business, for example, to buy or rent premises and pay for advertising.

You can get help from an organisation called Shell LiveWIRE. This gives advice and support to people aged between 16 and 30, helping them to start and expand their own businesses.

Further Information


Apprenticeships. (National Apprenticeship Service (NAS))

Shell LiveWIRE Website:

What Next After School? All you need to know about work, travel and study. (Author: Elizabeth Holmes Publisher: Kogan Page)

Glossary of terms

Higher education (HE)

  • Higher education (HE) includes a wide range of courses, mostly run by universities and colleges of higher education.
  • These courses include degrees, HNDs and foundation degrees.
  • Higher education courses are normally taken by students with A levels, BTEC National qualifications, an International Baccalaureate Diploma, an Access to Higher Education Diploma or equivalent.

Intermediate Level Apprenticeship

  • Intermediate Level Apprenticeships (known as Foundation Apprenticeships in Wales and ApprenticeshipsNI level 2 in Northern Ireland) combine employment with structured training. They are open to anyone aged 16 and over.
  • Intermediate Level Apprenticeships lead to qualifications at level 2. You will also get a technical qualification.
  • Intermediate Level Apprenticeships usually take two years to complete.

Advanced Level Apprenticeship

  • Advanced Level Apprenticeships (known as Apprenticeships in Wales and ApprenticeshipsNI level 3 in Northern Ireland) combine employment with structured training. They are open to anyone aged 16 and over.
  • Advanced Level Apprenticeships lead to level 3 qualifications, plus a technical qualification.
  • They usually take three years to complete. You might then be able to enter a permanent job or some higher education courses (please check prospectuses).


  • Self-employment refers to working for yourself, rather than for an employer. This might be through owning your own business or working as a consultant or freelancer.
  • Chartered Engineer
  • Chartered Engineer (CEng) is a professional qualification in engineering offered by professional associations after completion of a relevant engineering degree.
  • Chartered Engineers normally have the greatest level of responsibility and management for engineering projects.


  • A resource is a stock, supply or source of something that can be used when needed. There are many types of resource, including physical resources (like oil, coal and gas), human resources (eg, workers in a company), financial resources and information resources (like books and the internet).

Further education (FE)

  • Further education (FE) covers qualifications that are at a higher level than GCSEs or equivalent but below a university-level (higher education) course.
  • Most people in further education are aged 16-18, studying AS/A levels and equivalent work-related qualifications.
  • Further education usually takes place in sixth forms, separate sixth form colleges and FE colleges.

Distance learning

  • Any learning where you are not in the same place as the trainer, teacher or other learners for all or most of the course. It is sometimes known as open or flexible learning, especially when you might need to meet a tutor face to face at certain times during the course.
  • You might be learning online, or you might use DVDs, books, TV programmes or CDs, or a mixture.


  • Work-related. Degree A qualification awarded by a university or college of higher education, following a course of study. A degree usually takes three years full-time to complete, but can take longer for some subjects.


  • A person who has a degree.