The problems degree apprenticeships won’t solve

In the quest to tackle low-value courses the government has lauded the value of degree apprenticeships. James Coe wonders whether there has been enough discussion about their downsides

James Coe is Associate Editor for research and innovation at Wonkhe, and a partner at Counterculture

When I think of an apprentice I think of the people that studied over the road from where I used to live.

They were predominantly younger, in overalls and uniforms, studying engineering, construction, hairdressing, and training for all kinds of emergency services.

If I look on the Darlington College website I can find all the information I could ever need on levels, entry requirements, and funding, resplendent with lots of people looking like they are having a good time in the way that people in prospectuses look like they are having a good time.

For all its brilliance when I look at Darlington College and remember how it seemed as I walked past it everyday, it feels different to how ministers talk about apprenticeships. Particularly degree apprenticeships.

It is statistically unlikely that even if you work in the most vocationally minded, career promoting, structurally innovating university in the whole country, you have met more than a handful of young degree apprentices. This is because there are fewer than 5,000 apprentice starts at level 4 and above for under-19 year olds.


If you work somewhere like Manchester Metropolitan University your chances are greater but degree apprenticeships are as much a descriptor of an alternative to traditional undergraduate degrees as they are a qualification in their own right.

There is no universal definition of what degree apprentices are for or even what a good degree apprenticeship is. In a speech to the Conservative party conference back in 2017 now minister for skills, further and higher education Robert Halfon set out some of the benefits of degree apprenticeships:

In order to meet our skills gap, to ensure that we have people climbing up the ladder of opportunity, we need to massively increase our degree apprenticeships and I would love to see 50% of our higher education students actually doing degree apprenticeships as well as traditional degrees because it would meet our skills deficit, students would be earning as they learn, they would have no debt, and they are guaranteed to get good quality jobs at the end of it.

For Halfon, degree apprenticeships are about meeting skills needs, income, getting good jobs, and graduating without debt.

The unsaid part of this is the assumption that degree apprenticeships have significant benefits over undergraduate degrees.

As part of their statement on the crackdown on low value degrees apprentices and apprenticeships are mentioned no fewer than seventeen times in plugging skills gaps, meeting the needs of future industries, and providing a viable alternative to programmes the government believes to be low value.

The main policy announcements for degree apprenticeships are to improve the information available through UCAS, update apprentice standards, and encourage more employers to develop apprenticeships. These are all entirely sensible but they are also incredibly small if degree apprenticeships are going to be a genuine alternative to traditional undergraduate degrees.

The availability of degree apprenticeships is only partly the responsibility of universities. Degree apprentices are employees that spend some of their time within a higher education institution studying a nationally agreed apprenticeship standard. The availability of degree apprenticeship is as much to do with employers as it is universities. Unlike other qualifications, a university cannot simply decide to put one on.


The assumption within the degree apprenticeship literature is that there is a significant supply issue. This is to say that lots of students show an initial interest in degree apprenticeships and then either due to lack of information or choice simply choose to do something else because it’s easier. This lack of information is true at post-16 – but there is also work to address a sense that a degree apprenticeship is a less aspirational choice than going to university to study a more traditional qualification.

There is also clear evidence that demand is shaping a degree apprenticeship offer that can’t achieve wider aims for a more socially mobile debt-free graduate workforce. Workers over the age of 19 are hugely over-represented, a plurality of new starters are studying business administration, chartered accounting or law, and even where younger people are starting degree apprenticeships a majority of them have been with their employer for more than twelve months.

And although graduate outcomes for degree apprenticeships look strong this has to be considered in the context that degree apprentices are demographically, educationally, and occupy a position in the labour market, that already predisposes them to good graduate outcomes.

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It is much easier to undertake a degree apprenticeship if you are older, in employment, and have the requisite qualifications to undertake a high level professional degree. The entry for degree apprenticeships are often as high as for traditional undergraduate degrees. Degree apprenticeships are unlike a number of degrees and they are unlike a number of apprentices.

The implications of the structure of degree apprenticeships are huge. In the strangulation of supply in the putative crackdown of low-value programmes there is no indication that degree apprenticeships can absorb students that may choose to do something else. In fact, it may be that those students simply do nothing instead.

And while it is the case that students earn while they learn through virtue of being in employment, it is not clear that the moral good of apprentice wages is above the combined benefit of maintenance loans and any bursary provision. While there are some degree apprenticeships in the big list of degree apprenticeships that pay well some pay as little as £15,000 per year.


As the proposed shift to T-Levels from BTECs demonstrates where there is no properly thought out transition between qualifications there is inevitably a shock that leaves providers unsure how to teach, treat, or track students through the new landscape. It would be a similar error to assume that holding off the throttle on the expansion of undergraduate degrees will allow degree apprenticeships to accelerate.

The history of higher education is that it has been resistant to new modes of qualifications. For all of the innovations in lots of parts of teaching the structure of programmes, outside of a few providers, has remained stubborn. It is likely to remain stubborn while the labour market continues to, largely, reward traditional undergraduate qualifications and while universities are incentivised to teach them.

The expansion of degree apprenticeships is an issue of incentives above edicts and ministerial statements. It is of course about the supply of good qualifications but it is also about how they can be made a viable product for universities to teach and take seriously, and a robust enough proposition for employers to work with universities in supporting a more diverse range of students into them.

2 responses to “The problems degree apprenticeships won’t solve

  1. As a University employee of 15 years and a mother to a 19 year old Engineering degree apprenticeship – I read this with interest and understanding. My daughter is a straight A* student who was incredibly focused on her career choices from early teenage years. But the road to a DA was not easy — whilst studying for her a-levels she had to be completely committed to searching and planning her choices for DA and the companies which would offer this. And this is in engineering where apprenticeships are well known and well loved by employers. She did succeed through a vigorous application process and a AAA offer from Warwick – but that was just the start of the journey. She wanted to be 18, she wanted to be part of the University community, she wanted to live in the right place around people of her own age (not mid 20’s returners to education) – this all proved exhausting and very stressful. No invites to Welcome week, student accommodation not really available for her (and don’t mention Council Tax to me!), leaving home and having to build a new live – it’s a good job she’s resilient and she has a mum who understands how universities work! Having said all of that – it is the best thing! Great experience mixed with great education, a guaranteed job and no debt – what’s not to love? We just need to make it easier to access and apply for – and universities need to treat DAs in the same way as any other new student – that is how we will get more 18/19 year olds into this market and drive demand for DAs.

    1. Thanks for taking the time to post this Julie! I learned a lot from this and I hope your daughter enjoys the rest of her experience

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