How to get a free education

FutureLearn Limited

Hot on the heels of our University Funding Guide last week, we wanted to take a look at other ways you can get a higher education in the UK, without having to pay those fees yourself. The idea of having that much debt on your shoulders, even if it functions more like a tax, is intimidating and can be worrisome. So what else can be done? How can you continue with education throughout your life?



There are lots of companies out there who are eager to pay for, or subsidise, their employees’ education. Whether this is the point of the employment in the first place, or an added benefit, a free university degree is nothing to sniff at in the UK. Of course, nothing is entirely free, and you should be careful that you know all of the conditions attached, but if it all matches up you could be well on your way to a strong educational start without the stress of a negative bank balance.




We have discussed the benefits and limitations of apprenticeships at length in our Apprenticeships Guide. At their best, they can offer you a degree (or even a masters) in the subject of your choosing, paid for by a reputable company at a good university or college, while they also pay you a salary and you get solid work experience. Most of the ‘employer-sponsored degrees’ once available in the UK have now been converted to official degree apprenticeships, giving them a level of uniformity and accessibility they didn’t always have. It might take longer than a traditional degree to gain this qualification, as you are essentially studying part time; but it might not. There are no age limits, which means if you are older than a traditional university starter, you might feel more comfortable not being on campus all day every day anyway. Check out our guide for how to find and apply for the apprenticeship of your choice.




Unlike apprenticeships, sponsorships offer set periods of full-time college or university followed by set periods in the workplace. They can be undertaken in many industries, but are most often associated with practical careers such as the Merchant Navy, the armed forces, and engineering. As well as the paid-for education, in these you may be offered a stipend or salary during the studying phases as well as the work phases. Here are a few places to check out sponsorships:


Merchant Navy – apply to be a deck or engineering cadet through one of several shipping companies, and they sponsor your education at maritime college interspersed with work phases onboard their ships.

Royal Navy – several different bursary or sponsorship options are offered (not all for the full cost of a degree), with the proviso that a set number of years in service is expected after your qualification is achieved.

Army – there are several options here as with the Royal Navy, including those who want to become dentists or doctors.

Royal Academy of Culinary Arts – at Bournemouth & Poole College, you can undertake a chef scholarship, wherein you’re at college and given accommodation with a host family plus a small stipend, and then offered a lengthy placement in a professional kitchen with a proper salary, then back to college and so on.



In-Work Benefits

As the world of work increases in complexity and rapidity of change, there is greater need for lifelong learning, developing knowledge on the job, and upskilling as our jobs change beneath our feet. Some companies are starting to recognise this, and offer subsidised access to education while you work with them. Whereas plenty of big companies already offer short or part-time online courses as part of a bigger benefits package with websites such as, we think there’s scope for more solid commitment to earning the loyalty of millennials by enhancing their livelihoods and skillsets.



One such company trying to deliver on this is Walmart, a worldwide company who operate in the UK as Asda. In three locations in the US, they are trialling a programme to pay for their employees’ university degree while they work, whether they’re full-time or part-time staff, with an employee contribution of just $1 per day. This seems like a focused attempt to upskill and retain their workforce – especially those who may not otherwise have a chance at higher education – by concentrating on degrees relevant to the business, such as supply chain management.



Deliveroo are another business who recognise that their employees may want more out of life than a courier job; they acknowledge that the flexibility of their positions means that they are already appealing to students, and have recently launched a scholarship programme in several countries (including the UK) intended for degree study, including a weekly mentor session (you can read more about the benefits of mentoring in our guide here.



You can see that there are a plethora of ways to #StayNimble by getting a free or cheap education and work experience at the same time. The number and range of degree apprenticeships and workplace-subsidised courses are rapidly increasing, and although it’s not worth ruling out a ‘standard’ university place just because of the potential debt, it’s also not worth dismissing alternative scenarios such as this.




Author: Katherine

Katherine is a qualified careers advisor and a member of the Career Development Institute. She has just begun a PhD programme to research meta-skill development in the workplace, and is a fiction editor and publisher in her spare time. You can find her on Twitter at @katobell.

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