Apprenticeships are not one thing

Some policy stability would allow for a more nuanced conversation about apprenticeships. Michael Salmon reviews the latest research and data

Michael Salmon is News Editor at Wonkhe

So Robert Halfon has resigned. It’s a good moment to weigh up where things stand with the apprenticeships system.

Halfon, as committee chair and later skills minister, was the most vocal advocate for degree apprenticeships you could have. This has coincided with a period in which the apprenticeship – as an idealised qualification type – has united politicians and media commentators fairly comprehensively, seen across a broad spectrum as a “better” way to do post-compulsory education (than a degree, say).

The arguments have been more over detail at this point – that drop-out rates are too high, that there are too many level 7 courses in business and management, that levy funding gets returned to the Treasury, or that regulation is too much of a burden as the QAA spelled out just yesterday.

The capacity issue is probably the big question remaining – you can’t really compare them to “traditional” higher or further education when the numbers of places available are so different.

We’ve had rumours of tweaks to how the levy is used, to avoid a supposed preponderance of already-well-qualified graduates taking postgraduate apprenticeships at their existing places of work. And there is something to be said here – recent analysis from the Chartered Association of Business Schools found that 30 per cent of level 7 degree apprentices studying through business schools in England already held a level 7 or 8 qualification.

Halfon was understood as a key opponent to Treasury moves to restrict the “top” end of provision. His departure aside, the possibility of changes seems to have receded in recent months anyway, with the Conservatives defending the system as is and moving to attack Labour over any plans for changes that could be framed as reducing places (and let’s face it, the Growth and Skills Levy plan of allowing large businesses to have a free hand to run short courses instead of apprenticeships would do just that, no matter how you spin it).

Quite an achievement

Total numbers aside, the question of attrition is one that the Department for Education has clearly been concerned about – there’s a target for achievement rates across the system to reach 67 per cent by 2024–25, and threats of further regulatory intervention. Taken as a whole, last week’s stats show that in 2022–23 there was a slight uptick to 54.3 per cent, but hitting the goal looks quite unlikely (it’s one of those “somebody else’s problem” ones, being post-election).

But for the “other public funded” category of apprenticeship provider – local authorities and universities – we’re already at 65 per cent. It’s providers like Euan Blair’s Multiverse who are letting the side down, with achievement rates (accompanying a sizable increase in numbers) slipping by more than 10 percentage points for last year. For independent training providers as a whole the achievement rate is around 51 per cent – that’s a lot of drop-outs, job changes, redundancies, and general squandering of levy funds (if we’re being uncharitable – there are plenty of factors at play).

For level 6, 2022–23 saw the achievement rate rise to 65.7 per cent, and the number of achievers go above 10,000. Robert Halfon saw things “moving in the right direction” in what will be remembered as his valedictory letter to the sector – but the improvements are particularly noticeable at the university end of things. Would we expect level 2 and level 6 to be comparable though, or for achievement to represent the same thing?

The thing is, degree apprenticeships offered by higher education institutions clearly have a lot in common with continuing professional development, executive education, work-based learning, and “traditional” degree provision, in a way that means it’s not always helpful to lump them in with the category of “apprenticeships” and out of the category of “degree”. At some point we’ll have to stop talking about apprenticeships as if they are one thing. There are issues to be addressed and further researched in all sorts of areas that are not applicable to others (this fantastic study on the apprentice minimum wage from a team at Sheffield Hallam is both well worth a read and entirely separate from thinking about degree apprenticeships).

On the frontline

All this makes this week’s research report from a team at Staffordshire University and others, funded by the QAA, particularly useful. It focuses specifically on degree-level apprenticeship provision, and surveyed more than 1,000 apprentices, 248 training providers and 128 employers.

Part of the report’s intention is clearly to address this question of possible restrictions in levy spending for higher-level apprentices. Some 69 per cent of employers reported that they would discontinue degree apprenticeships if they could not finance them with levy funds. The recommendation placed front and centre is that the government “recognise the critical role” of the levy if it wants degree apprenticeships to continue to grow. Employers are generally very warm about the value of these qualifications in the report, praising them for helping to diversify their workforce, attract talent, achieve strategic goals and improve performance.

The question of curriculum organisation for degree apprenticeships continues to be an interesting and under-studied one. In the report, only around 40 per cent of staff reported that their degree apprentices were taught alongside non-apprenticeship students, and in many cases this was only in option modules or rarely throughout the academic year. Around 45 per cent of academic staff said that assessments for degree apprentices were moderately or extremely similar to those used for non-apprentices.

For students, overall satisfaction with teaching quality was 80 per cent (policing apprenticeships a notable exception). But sense of connection to the wider student body was low, with more than 20 per cent expressing “no sense of belonging at all.” There’s a question about whether this is something to be worked on – it’s not a metric that would cause concern for clients on a CPD course, for example. It depends on what we want these courses to be. For young people on an entry-level apprenticeship, the need for becoming part of a learning community is very different to those already in employment and learning alongside their colleagues.

Baskets and policy shocks

Robert Halfon was a champion for apprenticeships at a time when political discourse in their favour (and against universities) has tended towards an uncritical boosterism, which has also led to them being thought of as “one kind of thing”.

You would hope that apprenticeships could arrive at a point of maturity within the wider skills system where it’s no longer necessary to lump them all into one basket, from level 2 to 7, from industry to industry, from private training provider to university.

The issue though is that they are still very prone to policy shocks – removing eligibility to funds from certain undesirable types of provision, say, or making half the levy available for short courses as Labour is casually proposing – never mind who the responsible minister is. Social media discussions and think tank reports are increasingly full of policy entrepreneurship seeking to twiddle with this or that part of the system. A commitment to long-term stability would be a good start, allowing for more thinking about student experience, curriculum, assessment, and achievement rates, against a calmer background.

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