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Apprenticeships or university – a false choice

As we mark the end of Apprenticeships Week, Andy Westwood looks at how politicians and the media talk about apprenticeships and the false choice they continually present between them and higher education. There are good reasons to expand higher level apprenticeships, but this needs to happen in a better way - in collaboration with universities and learning from examples abroad.
This article is more than 10 years old

Andy Westwood is Vice Dean for Social Responsibility in the Faculty of Humanities and Professor of Government Practice at the University of Manchester

We’re at the end of Apprenticeships Week. You couldn’t really miss it as ministers and other politicians fell over themselves to promote it. The media quite enjoy the story too. However, like ministers (step forward Matthew Hancock and Vince Cable), mainstream press tend to cover the story of apprenticeships as merely being a ‘good alternative’ to studying a degree. This often comes with the inevitable comparisons of cost and debt and the perceived risk of unemployment. In some cases you can sense them rubbing their hands with glee as they suggest that an apprenticeship is a better choice.

There are two reasons why this proposition makes absolutely no sense at all.

Firstly, apprenticeships are not qualifications – they are jobs with training that employers specify and pay towards (and that training can and does include degrees). Secondly there are not – at least as yet – very many apprenticeships at higher levels that provide real alternatives to young people leaving school or college. Before 2009 there were virtually none. Today there are around 10,000 people starting higher level apprenticeships in England compared to some 300,000 starting a degree in higher education.

The comparison suffers even more when we consider that most apprentices at all ages and levels – are more likely to already be in a job with the employer before they are offered an apprenticeship by them.

But back to Apprenticeships Week. It began in 2007 – around about the same time as Universities Week and Colleges Week. At that time apprenticeships weren’t in the headlines or particularly in the thoughts of politicians or the media.

I bear some responsibility for setting the target for doubling the number of apprenticeships in the UK to around 500,000 as recommended in the Leitch Review in late 2006 – which I was working on at the time. Back then there were around 250,000 of them – although they were measured differently. I actually changed the measure from ‘average in learning’ – which I never really understood – to the number of starts and completions; the measure is still in use today.

By that measure it is clear that the number of apprenticeship starts has pretty much doubled since 2010. That’s good, although the big spike in 2011 came when the coalition abolished Train to Gain – a work based learning programme – and employers and providers quickly shifted their programmes to apprenticeship frameworks to preserve funding.

That’s one of the reasons why so many apprentices today were already in jobs before their employers ‘took them on’ to apprenticeship programmes.

I bet that’s not what many people think when they hear about the programme. Like many in the media and in politics, they will think that this is a programme that takes people out of school or college (or unemployment) and offers them a tried and tested route into a good job and a career.

Let’s unpack the stats: in 2012/13, 23% were under 19, 33%, 19-24 and 45% were 25+. That’s compared to 42%, 41% and 18% for the same age groups in 2009/10 so the age profile is drifting further away from younger entrants to the programme.

Across all apprenticeships in 2012/13, 57% of starts were at intermediate level (GCSE), 41% at Advanced level (A Level equivalent) and just 2% at higher levels (equivalent to a degree or HND/HNC level). In volume terms that’s just 10,000 higher level apprenticeships out of 500,000 apprenticeship starts.

There is absolutely nothing wrong with any of these options, in fact it’s a very good thing that there are such opportunities for people of all ages to get skills in the workplace. It’s just not happening in the way that ministers or the media describe them.

George Osborne, alongside his Autumn Statement pledge to expand higher education also committed funding to a further 20,000 Higher Level Apprenticeships. Fantastic – but to become real apprenticeships, employers and individuals will need to take them up. I’m not knocking Higher Level Apprenticeships – we need many more of them – I said as much in a blog in 2011.

But we need them to be based on the qualifications that are most valuable in the sectors that matter. That means we will need more universities and colleges offering full or part time degrees as part of Higher Level Apprenticeship frameworks. Some of the additional growth in HE could also come from such an offer.

Innovative universities will see this as one of many ways that they can offer vocationally relevant learning as well as a new funding stream. This is how the system works in countries like Germany, Norway and Switzerland – through overlaps and connections between higher education, employers and the apprenticeship system – and not through false choices between them.

And there are important spillovers for broader university and business interaction. Good Higher Level Apprenticeship programmes will catalyse all sorts of benefits across institutions even if they start up with relatively small cohorts. Think of programmes like HEIF as a similar example that we can learn from.

Is any of this rocket science? Well as Matthew Hancock enjoyed pointing out this week, there is now a high level apprenticeship in precisely that.

But we’ve got a very long way to go before there are sufficient apprenticeships to talk meaningfully about them being real options for young people who wish to leave school or college and to study higher level qualifications in the workplace. That’s why we now routinely read about the number of applications for apprenticeships at BT or at British Gas.

We won’t get there unless we get universities and colleges – as well as employers all playing a part. So let’s get on with it. More collaboration and more places please. Less of the disingenuous and unhelpful headlines that set up apprenticeships as competition with higher education.

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