This article is more than 4 years old

Degree apprenticeship critics are ill-founded, unhelpful and incoherent

Degree apprenticeship critics are ill-founded, unhelpful and incoherent, says Darryll Bravenboer
This article is more than 4 years old

Darryll Bravenboer is Director of Apprenticeships at Middlesex University

Numbers taking higher and degree level apprenticeships have grown.

But as apprenticeship starts at Level 2 and 3 have fallen since the reform of the system and the introduction of the Apprenticeship Levy, there’s a perception that the system is broken.

The criticism is that apprenticeships are now benefiting people who need them less (with evidence cited that fewer of those doing higher and degree apprenticeships come from deprived areas than those at Level 2 and 3) and that it’s still hard to get on a decent programme if you’re an excluded teenager or an adult learner. Universities, these critics suggest, shouldn’t be so involved in providing apprenticeships as they are against the spirit of the reforms.

This is a misunderstanding of what apprenticeships are for – under the guise of wanting to promote fairness. They’re about meeting the requirements of employers, making sure the UK economy has the skills it needs for the future, and promoting social mobility – a meaningful measure of which is access to professional careers – not about employers picking up the tab for weaknesses in the education system and jobs market. Indeed, 2017 Sutton Trust research expressed the concern that “too many apprenticeships are at Level 2, with no straightforward path towards higher levels,” and that many apprentices are treading water.

Wide agreement

Edge Foundation-funded research shows a high level of consensus among employers, providers and apprentices about what the objectives of degree apprenticeships should be, which 87% judging that a “very” or “extremely” important aim is increasing social mobility, and 83% increasing productivity.

While one function of universities traditionally has been to offer people from professional backgrounds access to professional careers – and employers complain graduates don’t have the skills required for the job – degree apprenticeships creatively disrupt this scenario by empowering people from all backgrounds to make the step into professional level roles. The effects have to be considered in the context of those students’ educational journeys from the beginning, and the professional and business roles which they are going into.

Here’s four examples.


Universities like Middlesex are offering a Nurse Associate apprenticeship for NHS health care assistants to advance their careers, a role which wouldn’t have existed without the development of higher apprenticeships. For some, this is an achievement in and of itself. A significant number will want to progress to become registered nurses (also available through a degree apprenticeship route).

Almost none of the students on the Nurse Associate programme would have considered a traditional nursing route: they are from low wage backgrounds, families who haven’t experienced HE previously, diverse groups and many are older. They are attracted to the programme by the opportunity to gain professional status and a degree at the same time.


On the Police Constable Degree Apprenticeship programmes that police forces around the country are starting in partnership with universities, there have been KPIs built into the contract, that measure the diversity of students attracted to them compared to existing officers. This is to fulfil a requirement that new PCs more closely reflect the communities they serve. The programme that the Police Education Consortium (comprised of four universities) has created for three police forces, Surrey, Sussex and Hampshire, had a demanding design brief around being accessible and offering online learning and a work-integrated approach in order to broaden opportunities to progress to professional education.

One of the student officers in the first cohort to start at Surrey, Ben Sperling, remarks that he had never imagined he would become a student, and that he thinks the degree apprenticeship programme has broadened the appeal of joining the police, including to more women.

Role elevation

Degree apprenticeships have also helped elevate roles not hitherto thought of as a profession. Working with employers to develop a degree apprenticeship, universities have helped establish B2B Sales as a profession complete with opportunities to gain recognition, professional status and membership of the Professional Association of Sales.

The programme has gone from strength to strength with the involvement of high-profile employers such as BAE Systems, BT, Royal Mail, Unilever, Aon and Whitbread, which by its very nature has expanded professional opportunities for students – perhaps the most important measure of social mobility that universities can contribute to.

Blue chip

Degree apprenticeship programmes for private sector roles can attract some highly-motivated, high-achieving students but also some from the opposite end with a poor educational history and low qualifications. Blue chip employers have targeted this latter group and the opportunities offered by the degree apprenticeship pathway specifically to widen their talent pool.

The Digital Tech Solutions Professional programme offered by universities such as Manchester Met with companies including IBM has 100% progression rates and 90% of graduates get Firsts and 2:1s. 54% of those on the programme are women. It’s not that higher achieving students are pulling up the rest with them; it’s that the more diverse the cohort, the more enriched the learning experience is for all students.

The apprenticeship reforms have been a great success for employers, skills and social mobility and some of the greatest success has been around degree apprenticeships. We mustn’t let ill-founded, unhelpful and incoherent voices stop us celebrating this.

2 responses to “Degree apprenticeship critics are ill-founded, unhelpful and incoherent

  1. Clearly written by an individual with a huge vested interest in the topic.Since August 2020 Level 6 and above starts have seen a large increase, now representing more than one in ten (11%) of all current apprenticeship starts. No wonder the apprenticeship budget is running out. That’s a FACT, not an opinion by the way.

  2. Looking from an economic and labour market perspective I would expect a figure of 30-40% as appropriate – if not level 6+ starts, then at least level 4/5 with a direct line of progression through to level 6 (and potentially 7 when appropriate to role). The solution must be in the way that funds are managed (e.g. funding 16-18s from the education budget, variable employer contributions) rather than assuming that there is a fixed pot where gains for one sector equal losses for another. Higher and degree apprenticeships have a huge potential to drive recruitment into public services and economically critical areas, open up professional careers to people who would not have considered higher education, and overcome barriers to progression for less qualified people in the workforce. They need to be expanded, along with high-quality apprenticeships at all levels.

Leave a Reply