While apprenticeship starts generally are falling, degree apprenticeships are bucking the trend. But numbers are still very small compared with other apprenticeships, and they have a long way to go before having the transformational effect on skills and social mobility that conventional degree courses have had in the UK. So why are we enthusiasts for degree apprenticeships?
The number of people obtaining degrees is an incredible fifteen times higher today than fifty years ago, with almost half of under-30s now participating in higher education. This has been one of the main drivers of economic growth, with over 80 per cent of graduates in highly skilled occupations within a few years of graduating and often enjoying a substantial earnings premium compared to non-graduates.
The rising higher education participation rate has also powered social mobility. In England, the proportion of young people living in the most disadvantaged areas who enter higher education has increased by 50 per cent over the past 15 years. Since the mid-2000s most of the growth in student numbers has come from these areas.
However, it has not all been success. Young people from disadvantaged areas are still far less likely to enter higher education than other young people, especially young men. The number of part-time students has collapsed since 2012 when we saw a steep rise in fees following further teaching grant cuts. Graduate outcomes also vary significantly, and graduates from richer families earn more after graduation than poorer graduates even after completing the same degree at the same university.
The problem of prestige
Higher education is differentiated in a way that most schools and colleges are not. Different levels of academic selection are used to filter entrants into institutions of greater or lesser prestige, with the latter predominantly post-92 universities and FE colleges providing HE. Although these are the institutions that have done the heavy lifting with widening access, they are now on the receiving end of criticisms that too many young people are being tempted by soft loans into degree programmes when they would be better off taking a shorter vocational qualification or apprenticeship.
Degree apprenticeships have the potential to break the mould of a prestige-ridden higher education system. Apprentices are still selected but employers and universities work together to base this on the employer’s needs rather than just prior academic attainment. And as employers come under increasing pressure to tackle lack of diversity in their workforces – and increasingly recognise the benefits of diversity to innovation and productivity – we can expect them to seek out diversity when recruiting apprentices, something which is far easier if selection is not just driven by academic criteria.
Degree apprenticeships for the public sector professions have particular potential to open doors to professional careers for a wider range of people. The Nursing Associate apprenticeship, for example, is a stepping-stone to the Registered Nurse degree apprenticeship for people who may not have originally achieved what was needed for a nursing degree. Given the national shortages of teachers, nurses, social workers and police officers, the scale of opportunities is potentially transformational. Beyond the public sector, examples such as Barclays targeting degree apprenticeships at people who are unemployed or have less than five GCSEs is also breaking the mould.
The really exciting possibility for degree apprenticeships is that they can be for everyone, younger or older, richer or poorer. It is vitally important that employers and universities work together to make this change. If we are successful, degree apprenticeships will challenge the academic elitism of a higher education sector still often more concerned with prior attainment than transforming potential into success.