The dilemma: Pilot Training, University or Both? 2020-03-07 18:23:02 2020-03-07 18:38:09
Pilot George
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The dilemma: Pilot Training, University or Both?

07 March 2020


As far as frequently asked questions go, the dilemma around going to university or going straight into flight training is up there as the most asked. The typical individual to ask about this topic is either your secondary school pupil considering their future A level options, a college/sixth-form student pondering their university applications and last but by no means least the concerned parent who worries about either, a) their son/daughter wasting money by going to university or b) the money involved in flight training should their son/daughter not have a fall-back plan. 

So with the above in mind and to save me having to type out the same response each and every time, I thought I'd go into a bit of deep dive on this very topic in order to help you come to an informed decision be you the aspiring pilot or their parent/guardian. I discuss university before flight training and university during flight training. I don't really touch on the "no uni at all" route.. so if you don't aspire to get a degree at all then don't read any further as this post is not for you. :-) 

Before we get stuck in, if you haven't read my About Me, then after finishing secondary school I went on to student a Bachelor Science degree at the University of the West of England. I started studying in 2012, had a highly valuable placement year during the third year of study, and graduated wit ha First Class Honours degree in 2016. I commenced flight training shortly after in the August.

Right, now you've the background of my own path, let's begin...

The post is split into smaller sections, click a title to get started.

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If you're at the stage of life where University becomes your focus or consideration then you're likely of school leavers age or above. Of course you may well be slightly older wishing to re-enter eduction, and if that's you then ace, but this will primarily be focussed on those towards the end of mandatory education. 

It's likely you're 16 to 18 years old or maybe a couple years younger given the very clear path our education system plants into the heads of students. That particular path of GCSE, A Levels and then Degree is by no means for everybody and as that student, don't feel pressured into going to university simply because your school - or indeed your parents - want you to! 

Now that might be a controversial view among the parent audience and for that I apologise somewhat, but I do hand on heart feel it is important that students be empowered to make their own choices around their futures. Granted, the chances are if pilot training is the desired route of your son/daughter then you'd no-doubt be helping them out on the financial front - unless your son/daughter happens to have landed a pot of gold - but nevertheless, from my experience as a teenager I strongly disagreed with the focus of forcing a student to enrol at universities. Your typical academia is not the only option, nor should it be and several vocational higher-education courses / apprenticeships can also set people up for life. I'd go so far as to say there's probably a fair few self-employed plumbers / electricians / builders etc from my secondary school that earn a fair share more than I do! Take of that what you will.

Flying is all I've ever wanted to do. Why should I even bother considering University?

Several reasons for this one really. I'll list a few (non-exhaustively), and delve into some of them a bit deeper.

  1. Life Experience & Independence
  2. Life Long Friendships
  3. Transferable Skills
  4. Internationally recognised-qualification (a fallback plan / plan B)

Let's look at life-experience:

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As a fresh-faced university student there's a high chance this will be the first time you're flung out into the wider world with adult responsibilities of your own. You'd no longer have your family there to cook your meals, wash your clothes, vacuum, clean the bathroom(s) and so on. Least not, in non-campus accommodation you'd also have bills to sort out too! When I look back at my time in university and also the experience of my Brother during his time at Uni., we very quickly developed from what you legally consider a 'dependent' to a self-sufficient adult. Okay, I'll concede that the government's student finance helps you out a bit there so the daunting no roof over your head scenario will never pan out, but you get the gist. Do not underestimate the value of these skills and the impact they can have on your life. 

Now, there's two sides to an argument and obviously this is no exception. You can develop those skills in any place in life. You could argue you'd also develop them during an Integrated flying course where you're flung into shared accomodation should you opt for it, but in my view (which is neither right, nor wrong)... with the significant investment you're throwing at flight training, is then the right time to learn how to wash your own uniform, cook for yourself etc? 

I'll come onto the cost of university separately and in a more detail, further down this post. 

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Transferable Skills

Another item on the list which can not be over-emphasised. Flying in the 21st century is not about being the biggest brain box in the room. If that was the requirement then airlines would want every applicant to have the highest possible GCSE, A Level and Degree grades. A degree would likely be mandatory. However, we find ourselves in a world where aviation is looking more at your competencies. If you're seriously considering flying as a career then you may well have already read a little into my Non-Technical Assessment Guide where I discuss competencies in greater detail, but to summarise... airlines look much more fondly on your ability to be aware of your surroundings, work as team and show leadership potential, be good at problem solving etc. Let's not forget conflict resolution - while not a competency directly it does connect with teamwork. Teams don't always agree... flight deck crew members don't always agree... it's about how you handle those situations that produces the strong synergy between you. University projects, placement years / internships all afford real-world opportunities for you to enhance these skills. My placement year with Microsoft was hands down one of the best years of my life and I developed so much as an individual there. I count myself fortunate to have secured a spot on their intern program to this day! 

Let's flip this one on it's head then and look at it from the other side of the argument. Little ol' John Doe could get most of these skills from working a part-time job, no? Or even a full-time job? Yes. You are correct. There is no right of wrong answer as I mentioned a little further up this post. It's ultimately about finding what works for you. Uni isn't for everyone, but I do tend to strongly recommend people still consider it. If you're focussing on the cost aspects of it, then we'll look at that shortly - both the pros and cons. Ultimately, an airline wants a very well-rounded applicant who shines in several non-technical competency areas. They don't want simply the brainiest kid in the class - although they do still hire them if they're the right fit... I could swear I've flown with some pretty intelligent guys and girls! A good thing to remember throughout any route you take is the licence in your hand will only get you that interview. It's everything else about you which comes together to land you that job. If you're smart but can't hold a conversation or talk about yourself well then it likely won't be the result you're after.

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You've got to consider that Plan B. Always.

Unless you've had your head under a rock with regards to current industrial and global affairs, then you're perhaps no stranger to the fact this industry is far from being all rosy. At the time of writing I happen to count myself incredibly lucky to have landed a job with an airline whom so claim to have one of the strongest balance sheets in their history. Other airlines haven't been so lucky. Just to bring a downer on your dream - because it's important you take the rose tinted glassed off for just a single second - the following notable UK airlines have entered administration since 2010:

  • Monarch (2017)
  • Thomas Cook Airlines (2019)
  • BMI Regional / FlyBMI (2019)
  • Flybe (2020)

These are just the airlines' you've most likely to have heard of as there were plenty more!

The fact I posses a degree makes the potential of airline redundancy that little bit easier a pill to swallow. I've flown with and met several crews who have said that during your career as an airline pilot you are likely to enjoy at least one redundancy (Note - Sarcasm). I have peers who I trained with, or knew through some friends, who have been made redundant several times in their careers. In fact, I know of one person has been made redundant twice within the past three years by first flying with one troubled airline before joining another - not then troubled but suddenly doomed - airline. Again, fortunately I haven't been in this situation. I don't wish it on myself, nor anybody else, and especially so when you consider the stark cost of flight training. Those debts won't repay themselves. Ask yourself, what would you do if you were made redundant and couldn't find another job that quickly?

It's not only company bankruptcy to consider too because global events such as higher oil prices or indeed the very present Coronavirus end up dampening consumer demand, eroding airline profit margins and highlight just how vulnerable the industry is. For perspective, on an average flight I operate we tend to see one or two passengers not show up for the flight - presumably having checked in online and then not made it to the airport for their reasons only they'll know. In the month of March that figure has been 10, maybe 15 and in larger airports sometimes as high as 50 no-show passengers per flight as consumer confidence falls thanks to Coronavirus. It's not like the food industry where people need it to survive. Flying is very much a modern day commodity. Demand and capacity can grow exponentially, but then shrink just as fast! 

If I look at my own Plan B... as I've worked in I.T. before, both employed and self-employed, I'm fairly confident that my hard-earned degree means that in an where was unable to find another job following redundancy, or whereby I happen to lose my medical indefinitely, I could find employment in another sector. Don't get me wrong, I doubt i'd walk straight into another role so they'll still no doubt be uncertainty, but i'd like to hope that would lesser than not having a degree / experience at all! 

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University costs a fortune! I don't want all that debt!

First of all, yes it does. Second of all, so does flight training. That said, I get the concern. I think a lot of people's concerns in this area come from perhaps a lack of understanding as to how student finance differs from that of finance for pilot training. The former is government-backed and income contingent meaning you only pay it back when you earn over a certain threshold and even then, you only pay back a set percentage of your income over that mark. The latter is often sourced by commercial finance products, such as mortgages. If you're fortunate enough to have a pot of money sat there for your pilot training then you are certainly very fortunate indeed and many cadet-entrant pilots would envy your position. Sadly, the bulk of us lend it in one form or another. 

How much does it really cost to go to University?

I'll use the repayment structure which applied to me when I joined university. It was known as Plan 2, and still exists at the time of writing. The difference now is the loan amounts / fees differ by UK country. When I went to University the cost of tuition fees were £9,000 per year in England, with a reduced amount in Year 3 for my placement year. You'll have to forgive me I can't remember how much Year 3 cost so i'll exclude it therefore comparing this to a non-placement based course. In that same three year period I borrowed £5,400ish a year in maintenance loans from the government. I was not eligible for any grants, so I don't talk about them here. With this in mind:

  • 3 Years Tuition Fees @ £9,000 = £27,000
  • 3 Years Maintenance Loan @ £5,400 = £16,200

This means the total lending related to University was £43,200. My fees were based on a non-London based University and the amount of maintenance loan was based on my the joint income of my parents. Just like a commercial loan, student finance loans are also subject to interest and that rate annoyingly varies with the Retail Price Index and also the amount you earn! My own student finance interest is currently 2.4% which is way less than my pilot training loan interest. 

Given I graduated in 2016 and initially took the loan out in 2012 my total Uni loans now stand at £54,000 give or take a few pounds for rounding purposes. That's a heck of a lot of money, right?!! The major positive to student finance is it does not need to be paid if you earn £0. Furthermore, even if you are earning you will not pay a single penny until you earn above £25,000 per year. A large proportion of graduate entry level jobs start at or below this figure. Many of my friends are only just starting to pay theirs back having been in typical employment for around four years. I went straight into flight training off the back of university and as such only really started paying it back once I started flying for an airline. 

When people always say it costs a lot, I always say to them just treat is as a future tax and to try to forgot about the grand total. In fact the balance means so little to me that I only found out how much I owed when I signed in to check the balance for the purposes of this blog post. If you're curious, mortgage companies in respect of buying a future house will only care about the monthly outgoing towards it and not it's overall balance! Important to note, if I lose my job I will not have to pay the government back until I earn over £25,000 once again. However, the pilot loan I have is a different story and will need repaying no matter what! 

How much will the uni loan repayments be?

The "extra tax" I mention is 9% of everything you earn over that £25,000 threshold mentioned. I'll put this into perspective for you. As a new pilot I earn give or take £45,000 a year. That £45,000 is actually only £34,000 GROSS (before tax) with the remainder coming from L3 Airline Academy's pilot training bond. I've written a separate blog post on that if you're wanting more information, but all it basically does it reduces your "taxable" income. Therefore, 9% above £25,000 on my GROSS pay is £810 a year, or £67.50 a month. 

Yep... on a grand total of £54,000 and the resulting first class degree I only repay £67.50 a month. That's not a huge deal to me at this time. If I factor in the expected GROSS salary of an airline Captain around £100k a year then you'd be repaying £6,750 a year, or £563 a month. All of a sudden that's a big deal. 

Many people say "ah it's alright you'll never pay it all back. It's written off after 30 years!". Wrong, as if you do go on to become a Captain then you'll likely begin start to eat into that student loan debt VERY quickly. £563 is also a significant chunk of money taken out of your pay. Although a £100k+ salary is still a large amount of money in your pocket each month irrespective of the deductions expected. I tend to not really realise I've paid any student loan money as I never physically see that money enter my bank account, it's all taken out by your employer on behalf of HMRC and the Student Loans Company. So the NET pay I get stays more or less the same each month. It'd be a different story if that £68 was paid by DirectDebit - then I'd feel it, for sure! 

Summary - Should you go to Uni before flight training?

Let's summaries the points.

  • It's expensive - that's the obvious one! 

  • You'll develop as a person, and forge solid friendships / networks around you! 

  • You get out what you put in. If it's a degree you're interested in.. you might get a first class. If you choose one for degrees-sake, you might not be that interested in the subject matter, not bother with coursework due to lack of engagement and could (worst case) see yourself getting a 2:2 degree. My advice, only study a degree subject if you have a parallel interest in that field. 

  • You'll be repaying it for a long time on pilot pay, but you won't really notice the dues as they comes out as part of your payslip deductions. That said, if your heart isn't set on university then that's another £563 or so a month you could take home as a Captain. Granted.. that's simplified significantly as you'll be taxed etc too. But either way, the more senior you become in an airline, the higher the value of that 9% repayment.

  • You'll have a fall back plan. If you do a degree prior to flight training you've a plan b in the case of something happening that isn't in your favour. Be that redundancy, medical loss, or even failing your flight training course altogether - it can and does happen. Given your outlay and investment in flight training, a plan b can be invaluable for your own piece of mind and financial security. 

Ultimately, it's a decision only you can make. I don't hold that answer because everyone is different. I just set out to breakdown the pros and cons often mentioned / questioned by readers of this blog. If you've a slight interest in Uni my strong advice would be to visit them. Go see what the facilities are like much in the same way you would from a flying school.

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This one is somewhat controversial in the flight training arena. In my flight school alone there was mixed opinions on this very route to obtaining a degree and those questions weren't coming from the mouths of the flying schools themselves who were all too keen to push their university partnerships. The questions came from those who had a traditional degree by attending and completing the full university experience. I am, of course, talking about these shiny looking study-and-train degrees from various universities around the country. I won't name them here but the major flying schools tend to have such relationships with universities providing opportunities to trainees on flying courses.

If you've a degree already then this section is almost certainly not for you. These courses / university partnerships very much pull on the strings of parents who want their children to obtain a degree - as every other modern-day teenager seems to go on to achieve. However, if you break down said degrees into their component parts then I would hope you would soon begin to align yourself to my perhaps controversial but very valid viewpoint. 

In the first section of this blog post we already touched upon some of the strong draw-factors for university. The friendships / the networks / the struggle with failure and examinations etc. That's uni life. Campus living, working hard, stressing about having to trim down your 30,000 word dissertation into that strict 12,000 word limit. Etc, you name it. If you're a parent reading this and you went to university then you know exactly what I'm on about. I should use the word "some" here as not all of the degrees I reference are like this, but the study-as-you-train approach is the modern-day BTEC of degrees in the sense the flight training is the vocational aspect. The academic side is often lacking beyond paying the uni a lot, for very little.

I'll use the L3 degree as an example, which in partnership with the associated university will aim to provide students a degree. The caveat to this is of course it requires the actual student to go on to secure employment with an airline in order to complete the final year coursework and therefore graduate from the course. The recruitment of aviation is very up-and-down and can't always be guaranteed post training irrespective of how well you pass your CPL/IR or MPL course. I appreciate of course I'm being very cynical. It is not my intention. I prefer "realist". You wouldn't jump into buying a house without appreciating it's true value and that's the approach I'm taking here.

To put this into context let's say you've paid your flight training fees, go on to pass the course and then can't get a job for around a year or so due to the current industry at that time. You think "hmm, not to bother i'll go use my degree to get a job somewhere.". Of course nothing is stopping you from working anywhere which doesn't require one but if you've loans to repay then a graduate level salary is a good starting point, right? Well... you can't. Why you ask? Simple. You've not graduated that uni course and nor will you until you've actually got a job with an airline and completed around a year there. It's inherently flawed, and seems incredibly unfair to the trainee/student. 

With any flying school related degree you need to ask yourself, "What value does this have in my life besides it simply being a degree?". The fact is if you opt to go down the Integrated route of training then you're already shelled out close to, if not over £100,000 for the licence. If you're to then pay a university on top for a degree you need to consider what extra strings it adds to your bow. I can tell you that from my I.T. degree at the University of the West of England I could pretty much plan and implement a whole host of software / web applications or even cloud-related technology given the techniques past on to me. I'm not being arrogant there as stepping back I would of course need to work in a team, or organisation that also does said activities and, I'd be highly unlikely to just be able to do all of that on my own straight off the bat but you get the gist. Modern day degrees provide strict and often regulated course structures which provide students new-found knowledge in their chosen subject matter. Being frank now, I honestly can not see the value of the flying school associated degrees beyond one very hidden and not often talked about benefit -- access to Student Finance. (More on that in a bit). 

I'd encourage anyone considering this route to seriously take a look at the degree content. The degree I'm hinting at doesn't even see you attend the university campus or take part in campus life once, despite the university still asking you to cough up fees. There is very little assessment, or indeed teaching involved from their side either. They hand that aspect back to the flying school. What's poor in my view is the actual basis for assessment. It's a variety of modules comprising of reflective essays on each stage of the trainees journey through their flight training. Furthermore, a pass in the ATPL subjects constitutes a direct pass in a University module. What for, I ask myself? You've done nothing remotely Uni related and got a pass in a module.

With the vast majority of teaching being delivered by the flying school, which you'll have already paid them for, why pay twice, for not a lot more?

In my opinion -- again it's a subjective opinion but based on the readership of this blog it's a valued one (I hope!) -- the value of a degree comes from your ability to talk about the teachings of it and your development during it at interview. Granted a lot of employers these days couldn't care less what it says on the piece of paper so long as you have one, but when you consider industries with competitive application processes for graduates... how would the title and content of said degree be looked at, versus one from somebody who actually attended seminars / lectures. Moreover, if you wanted to sidestep into airline management, would the degree provide you anything useful for that?

What's this student finance thing you mentioned?

Knowing peers who study / studied for this type of degree alongside their training, the major draw for many people was the access to finance. Flight training is pricey and I'll be the first to admit that. Sadly the British Government does not see being an Airline Pilot as a vocation which should gain access to the sought after university funding because it is not an academic career. That's an argument for another day, but alas... a few of the uni / flying school combined courses aim to challenge this or work against that view.

In essence if you consider some of these courses you may well be paying them tuition fees of £9000+ a year, but due to you not needing to ever really use any of the uni facilities they will then pass some of that fee back to the flying school to offset your flight training fees. I can't remember the exact amount, but if we hypothetically use £4,000 as this figure, then that'd mean the governments funding would reduce your flight training fees by £12,000 overall. If this financial benefit is the major reason for you choosing this degree then that might be a major positive for you - if you don't really care about the end degree. On top of this of course, you can also access the maintenance loans (means tested on parents/guardian income) which can then also be used to further offset your training fees, or pay for food/drink/transport etc during your time in training. 

Don't forget of course, you'll still then need to pay all of that student finance back at the rates mentioned in the first part of this blog - 9% of earnings above £25,000 GROSS earnings. It's a roundabout way to reduce the initial outlay you need to find for your flight training, but the degree (in my opinion) is not really worth the weight of the paper the certificate will be printed on. Realistically, this financial benefit should be your only draw to these types of degrees. If it is instead because you're after a degree... then do a traditional uni course. 

Well, there we are. That took me quite a while to type out but I hope this now answers the ever-asked question around doing degrees prior or during flight training. A degree is not something that should be a decision rushed into. Choosing the correct degree can truly enhance your knowledge and future employment potential. However, the wrong degree can be seen as a waste of your time and effort.

Choose wisely, and you'll not regret your decision.

All the best,

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