University entry: application letters & essays


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 University Degree or Vocational Qualification: Which Is Best?

The debate about whether vocational qualifications are more valuable than university degrees or vice versa has been raging for some time now. Although academic degrees are viewed by many as the more prestigious option, increasing amounts of credibility are now being given to vocational education, with some arguing that it is the best choice for some students (Mallaby, 2015). How do you go about figuring out which option is best for you? One of the most important factors to take into consideration is what your career aims are.

If your objective is to become an academic or enter a profession that you require a degree to gain employment in then it goes without saying that  you should embark upon a degree course at university. However, if you want to be a plumber or a builder then it makes little sense to study for a degree. These professions can both be extremely lucrative, and a vocational qualification will far better quip you for the role.

However, it is worth noting that the majority of vocational qualifications are regarded as being less prestigious than degrees. Research by Dubow et al. (2009) indicates that there is an ingrained preference for academic degrees over their equivalent level of vocational qualification (Dubow et al., 2009). In addition to being perceived as less prestigious, vocational qualifications also tend to lead to lower wages than vocational qualifications, although more prestigious apprenticeships can result in more substantial financial gains than degrees attained at some of the less selective universities. The earning power associated with those who have been awarded vocational qualification is also currently increasing (Kirby, 2015), indicating that they could potentially be capable of rivalling degrees in terms of leading to well-paid jobs at some point in the future.

In spite of the lower overall earning power associated with vocational qualifications, the Education Policy Institute (2017) has noted that there are some university subjects for which graduates earn less than people who have completed apprenticeships. The average wage of individuals who have attended university also varies considerably depending upon which institution they studied at. Degrees from some universities typically lead to lower earnings than vocational qualifications (Education Policy Institute, 2017).

There is also a great deal of variation in the earnings of those who have attained vocational qualifications. A study conducted by McIntosh and Morris (2016) on behalf of the Centre for Vocational Education Research found that the return on investment associated with these qualifications varies considerably according to the type of qualification and subject of study. This indicates that factors other than whether an individual has completed a degree or a vocational qualification might be just as important in determining his or her earning potential.

Although in general terms, degrees yield greater financial rewards than vocational qualifications, there is evidence that the latter result in greater levels of life satisfaction. Research cited by higher education experts Matthew Mayhew et al. (2016) found that people who have gained vocational qualifications self-report higher scores for happiness than those who have attained university degrees. Two different studies have both produced findings to support this (Mayhew et al., 2016). This indicates that money is not the most important thing to everyone, and that there are other intangible advantages associated with gaining a vocational qualification.

Individuals who have achieved vocational qualifications also have higher rates of employment than those who have attained university degrees, which suggests that people with the latter have a better chance of finding work (Harbron & Corfe, 2013). Those with vocational qualifications might not necessarily occupy the best paid positions, but are less likely to be out of work. If you have a low tolerance for uncertainty and want to reduce your chance of finding yourself jobless, you might be better suited to these qualifications.

Unemployment is currently a pressing issue for university graduates. They currently suffer from high rates of joblessness, leading to speculation that university might not actually be the best option for those wishing to find steady work (Paul, 2011). Vocational qualifications could potentially offer greater piece of mind to those who are worrying that they are going to end up claiming benefits in spite of spending so much time studying and preparing for their future.

Another issue to take into account is the long-term impact of your choice of qualification upon your offspring. The children of university educated parents have a far greater chance of attending university themselves (Dubow, Boxer & Huesmann, 2009). Therefore, by pursuing a vocational qualification rather than a degree, you could be reducing your son or daughter’s chance of doing the latter.

It is also worth considering the fact that vocational courses provide participants with a greater amount of practical knowledge than degrees. They are aimed at enabling you to carry out a specific job rather than just teaching the theory behind it. Those who prefer learning useful skills and competencies to filling their heads with theoretical debates might be better off opting for vocational qualifications.

If you do opt for a vocational qualification over a degree, you should bear in mind the fact that it is not possible to convert this type of qualification to a degree. However the same does not apply to university graduates who then wish to gain a vocational qualification. Upon completion of a degree, graduates can then carry out a vocational conversion course, which provides them with an additional vocational qualification that enables them to work in specific professions. These courses also equip participants with the necessary on-the-job skills (Overton, Johnson & Scott, 2011), meaning that university graduates can effectively use an additional vocational course to better prepare them for the workplace.

So which qualification is the best? The answer to this is “neither”. A better question to ask would be “Which qualification is better for me?” If money and prestige are less important to you than the satisfaction that you gain from your work and you want to enter the job market earlier and gain a higher chance of employment then you might better suited to studying for a vocational qualification. On the other hand, if you want to impress prospective employers with a well-respected qualification and increase your chances of earning a high wage then a degree could be the way to go. Ultimately, only you can make the decision.


Dubow, E., Boxer, P. & Huesmann, P. (2009). Long-term effects of parents’ education on children’s educational and occupational success: Mediation by family interactions, child aggression, and teenage aspirations. Merrill-Palmer Quarterly, 55(3), 224-229.

Education Policy Institute (2017). Response to the call for evidence “The economics of higher education, further education, and vocational training”. Retrieved from

Harbron, R. & Corfe, S. (2013). University education: Is this the best route to employment? Retrieved from

Kirby, P. (2015). Levels of success. Retrieved from

Mallaby, A. (2015). Academic vs vocational education. University of Derby Magazine, 3. Retrieved from

Mayhew, M., Rockenbach, A., Bowman, N., Seifert, T., Wolniak, G., Pascarella, E. & Terezini, P. (2016). How college affects students. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

McIntosh, S. & Morris, D. (2016). Labour market returns to vocational qualifications in the Labour Force Survey. Retrieved from

Overton, T., Johnson, S. & Scott, J. (2011). Study and communication skills for the chemical sciences. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press.

Paul, J. (2011, 24 May). Are vocational qualifications a better option than university? The Guardian. Retrieved from



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