Urgent changes are required to the implementation of degree apprenticeships if they are to increase economic productivity and improve social mobility. This is the headline finding of an inquiry, led by Policy Connect, in relation to the rollout of the key government initiative.
A short history lesson
Following a series of government inquiries, including the Wolf report into vocational education and training and the Richard review of apprenticeships, the then Prime Minister David Cameron launched degree apprenticeships in 2015 as a flagship economic strategy.
Degree apprenticeships can be characterised by the following key design features:
- Apprentices split their time between university study – working towards gaining a full bachelor’s or master’s level qualification – and earning a wage and getting on-the-job experience.
- The cost of tuition fees for students is entirely offset by a combined contribution from government and employers (through either a levy or non-levy option).
- Importantly, the design of degree apprenticeship standards are to be led by employers. This is consistent with the government’s desire that apprentices be equipped with skills that are of relevance to employers.
In assessing the evidence considered through the Policy Connect inquiry, it is worth reflecting on the government’s original intention.
Degree apprenticeships will give people a great head start … they will bring the world of business and the world of education closer together.
These were the words of David Cameron. Similar positions have been reiterated by other ministers and featured in high-level government plans, including the industrial strategy.
Fast forward three years, and the authors of Policy Connect report conclude that while employers and providers see degree apprenticeships as a sound policy in providing a skills pathway for students, there are a number of significant system-wide challenges which require immediate reform.
The review methodology involved evidence sessions, written statements from representatives, and analysis of data. Taken together, the inquiry posits three main findings.
Location, location, location
The Higher Education Commission mapped the average distance of degree apprenticeship vacancies against the education and employment hot and cold spots in the country. It shows that degree apprenticeship vacancies are most likely to be in close proximity to education and employment hot spots. Those in areas of less opportunity have to travel much further to find a degree apprenticeship vacancy.
The report makes the compelling point.
At its worst, those from Norfolk would have to travel a distance which is twelve times as far as someone from Hammersmith and Fulham.
In turn, the HEC calls for increasing the number of providers offering degree apprenticeships and critically, to ensure that young people receive financial support to access opportunities not available in their local area.
Agile and responsive design
The report highlights significant concerns with the process of developing and approving new degree apprenticeship standards and critiqued the work of the Institute for Apprenticeships which is charged with approving new courses.
While it is essential that employers are central to the design of these courses and that adequate time is directed to ensuring that this is done properly, delays in securing approval have significant implications in meeting skills shortage vacancies, particularly in sectors such as construction and healthcare. The report notes that, if courses are not developed and iterated quickly, there is a risk that they become obsolete in an ever-changing labour market.
There remain unresolved issues related to how degree apprenticeships connect with lower-level qualifications (including with the upcoming T Level qualifications), which necessitate for a broader examination of the relationships between higher education and vocational education and training.
Untangling the web of regulation and fees
The report lays out clear recommendations to simplify the overly-bureaucratic regulatory arrangements overseeing apprenticeships, which may in part also explain the delays associated with the design and approval of new standards.
There’s a need for an urgent review of the degree apprenticeships funding mechanism. At present, employers with a wage bill over £3 million are charged 0.5% of this as an apprenticeship levy, whereas those with a wage bill under £3 million, typically SMEs receive government investment to cover some 90% of their training costs.
Despite this arrangement, there is a dearth of SMEs that take apprentices. This is of critical importance given that 98.7% of all businesses in the UK are considered to be small or medium in size and with many in rapidly-expanding sectors that the government is so keen to support.
Analysis of the number of providers available per degree apprenticeship standard demonstrates that 63% of degree apprenticeship standards have none or just one provider that can deliver to non-levy payers. This compares to the 50% of degree apprenticeship standards that have no or just one provider for levy payers. It is clear that, in addition to financial incentives, more work needs to be done on ensuring that local businesses are able to work with nearby universities in the co-delivery of degree apprenticeships.
All in all, this Policy Connect review, and the recommendations laid out within it, position degree apprenticeships as holding a bold and compelling promise that remains only partially fulfilled. Much work, in the short and long term, is required to give degree apprenticeships the policy clarity and infrastructure that they require to truly deliver on the economic and social mobility aspirations that they were created to achieve.