Minister for Skills, Apprenticeships and Higher Education Robert Halfon has strong views on degree apprenticeships. They are his “two favourite words” and he thinks all universities should be offering them. But you can’t cajole universities into offering degree apprenticeships – the incentives have to be right.
It has been six years since the creation of the Apprenticeship Levy, and nine since the creation of degree apprenticeships, and so those universities that found the original idea compelling have had the time to work with employers to get their degree apprenticeships up and running – hampered to some extent, perhaps, by the pandemic. Contrary to popular belief there is also already a solid presence of selective/Russell Group universities offering degree apprenticeships, as we explore further below.
The minister told us:
The subject of degree-level apprenticeships is very close to my heart. They can help students to climb the ladder of opportunity into good jobs, and they play a hugely important role in social mobility, helping people who might not normally go to university kickstart their career and get a degree without the debt.
They also play a key role in helping to plug skills gaps, helping businesses to grow and innovate, and facilitating growth in our economy.
Since they were introduced in 2014, there have been on 148,000 degree level apprenticeship starts, and I am extremely proud that level 6 and 7 programmes now make up over 12 per cent of apprenticeships overall. In the last academic year, they have risen from just over 39,000 to more than 43,000. But I want us to go further.
That is why we have made up to £8 million available to universities through the Strategic Priorities Grant to offer more degree apprenticeships. And I will continue to work with universities to ensure as many people as possible can benefit from them.
So is there capacity for further growth? While the minister is evidently keen, and supportive of universities working on degree apprenticeships, it’s not clear whether there is a specific target in mind, where growing degree apprenticeships interacts with other elements of higher education policy development, or indeed, whether his enthusiasm is shared across government.
Weighing up degree apprenticeships
The universities that have taken the plunge by all accounts have found the experience to be a mixed bag. On the one hand offering degree apprenticeships can strengthen relationships with employers, and deepen ties with other regional actors such as FE colleges, public service providers and local authorities, as well as broadening the university’s offer. On the other, universities that offer degree apprenticeships have to navigate an entirely separate regulatory system – one that includes inspection by Ofsted – with all the associated costs and hassles involved. Working with any organisation other than a large regional or national employer adds to the overheads – small and medium enterprises need additional support and engagement to make the most of any apprenticeship offer.
The promise of degree apprenticeships as an engine of social mobility and social justice can be overstated. If you assume that the apprentice model is more likely to appeal to those less well served by traditional higher education then degree apprenticeships should automatically expand participation, but it’s not something that universities have a great deal of influence over given that apprenticeship recruitment is frequently undertaken by the employing organisation, not the university.
Where those apprenticeships are competitive and prestigious, then the rules of sharp elbows apply. For example, Sutton Trust analysis suggests that only five per cent of students who started degree apprenticeships between 2015 and 2020 were eligible for free school meals. Degree apprenticeships skew toward an older student body, and more prosperous areas have disproportionately benefited from the growth in degree apprenticeships.
It’s not necessarily that universities are sniffy about offering degree apprenticeships, in other words, it’s that when funding is already challenging, there needs to be a really good reason to do them, one that’s genuinely mission-driven so that they are fully integrated into the wider work of the university. Degree apprenticeships are also expensive for employers – though worthwhile with the right investment – so there has to be a lots of strategic commitment on both sides. And both employers and universities need confidence that government will continue to be supportive.
Who is offering apprenticeships?
We’ve plotted where higher education providers, including but not limited to universities, are involved in delivering apprenticeship programmes at level 4 and upwards.
Business and nursing subject areas are most prominent in this provision, with the latter seeing a significant amount of postgraduate apprenticeships on offer. In this data it seems that degree apprenticeships are particularly attractive to mature students.
In 2020 (the latest year of data available) we see seven providers from the Russell group involved in degree apprenticeships – Exeter, Warwick, Sheffield, Leeds, Queen Mary, Birmingham, and Nottingham.
This chart is a slice from OfS’s “size and shape” dataset, showing undergraduate (up to and including Level 6) and Postgraduate (level 7 and above) for all providers active in this area. The data extends only as far as 2020, and is available either on a student number, entrant, or qualifier basis – and you can filter by mission group or region. The charts below show subject level and student background deprivation (IMD quintile) for the provider you mouse over at the top – this data is suppressed where small numbers are involved.
There is more up-to-date data available from DfE – but this is focused on higher apprenticeships rather than degree apprenticeships. This shows involvement from Exeter, Sheffield, Leeds, and Birmingham from the Russell group, with a focus on business subjects.
This chart shows “starts” (enrollment) and “achievements” (completion) data for “higher apprenticeships” (L4 and L5) for the previous few years at every provider in England I could identify as a higher education provider as we would recognise it. You can filter by subject, and show the chart for particular regions and mission groups using the filters. The data is from DfE apprenticeship statistics.
Quid pro quo
Universities UK has endorsed degree apprenticeships as a “success story” and released a ten-point plan for the government to support their growth – essentially in a friendly way challenging Halfon to back up his exhortations with policy and calling for renewed energy from government to get degree apprenticeships moving again. There’s a diplomatic point about reducing the burden of regulation and a suggestion that there be a more careful look at the interaction between degree apprenticeships and widening participation.
But a key series of points relates to place-based approaches and work with SMEs – suggesting that government should empower local actors to integrate degree apprenticeships into local skills improvement plans, and strengthen the link to places.
The £8 million investment from government, which is to be distributed by the Office for Students, could usefully be targeted here, supporting the growth of the core degree apprenticeship infrastructure.
It wouldn’t necessarily lead to startling growth in overall numbers in the short term though, and so we may see that funding deployed to drive more rapid growth that makes headlines but can’t be sustained for the longer term. For now – unusually – government and universities are on broadly the same page, but the consensus in favour of growth in degree apprenticeships may fracture when it comes to the pragmatics on the ground.