We can achieve parity between apprenticeships and traditional degrees

UCAS Head of Policy Ben Jordan and UCAS Apprenticeship Programme Lead Lindsay Conroy introduce UCAS' new research into the lightbulb moments for would-be apprentices

Ben Jordan is Head of Policy at UCAS

Lindsay Conroy is Apprenticeship Programme Lead at UCAS.

Today, UCAS, along with the Sutton Trust, is publishing our flagship new report – Where Next? What influences the choices of would-be apprentices?

This report builds on our previous Where Next? reports, exploring the key lightbulb moments for students as they progress towards their desired destination.

This publication comes amidst growing demand for apprenticeships. Each year, UCAS supports nearly 1.5 million students to explore the full range of post-secondary opportunities. The number of students interested in apprenticeships has grown rapidly over the last two years – reaching over a quarter of a million – and today 40 per cent of students interested in undergraduate degrees are also interested in apprenticeships.

This number will only grow. Readers of Wonkhe will be familiar with UCAS’ Journey to a Million debate. Come 2030, we project there will be a million higher education applicants in a single cycle, up 30 per cent on today. As a result, we think that the number of students interested in apprenticeships could exceed 500,000.

As demand and competition grows, it is vital we ensure students are fully aware of the range of choices available to them – spanning from traditional undergraduate study, apprenticeships, and Higher Technical Qualifications, to credit based learning and microcredentials, powered by the Lifelong Loan Entitlement.

Ultimately, there should be little difference in how students explore these options, and UCAS’ recent announcement with the Department for Education on our growing apprenticeship service will seek to bring a consistent experience to students in exploring both undergraduate degrees and apprenticeships.

Parity, of course, is one of the most overused words in education policy. Everyone agrees it represents a valid end – but what are the means for us to get there? For me, parity is an oversimplification, and there are many facets to this. Today’s report tackles this all-important question, unpacking the concept of ‘parity’ into five key areas that are essential to ensuring apprenticeships exist on a level footing with university or college routes, with the aim of better supporting students.

Parity of ambition

Previous UCAS research shows that one in three students consider university as early as primary school, with advantaged students 40 per cent more likely to do so. However, for apprenticeships, our new research shows that this figure is less than 5 per cent – meaning around one student in the average primary school class considers an apprenticeship at that age. While we welcome changes in the law this year to strengthen legislation that requires that secondary school age students are presented with careers advice around technical education, as well as a UK Government commitment to improving careers education in primary school – it is clear that this ambition gap begins before age 11, and that young people can be influenced by a variety of different factors.

Despite our finding that 70 per cent of students have a positive initial perception of apprenticeships, to achieve parity of ambition we need aspiration raising and myth debunking around apprenticeships to start as early as possible – recognising the impact of these early interventions.

Parity of opportunity

Each year, over half a million students enter full-time undergraduate study, with the entry rate of 18-year-olds across the UK ranging from 30 per cent to 41 per cent. However, for apprenticeship opportunities, whilst we see significant and growing demand – as outlined above – the number of starts for young individuals at Level 4 and above in England is less than 5,000 –some will be existing employees.

While the Apprenticeship Levy has doubled the funding available for apprenticeships since its implementation in 2017, to £2.5 billion each year, 99.6 per cent of this was spent in 2021-22. This means the system is under significant pressure without enough apprenticeship opportunities to meet demand. Our report finds that many students do not pursue an apprenticeship opportunity because they cannot find one in their preferred subject or location. The message is clear – there is high demand from students, and a significant opportunity to support shortage skills areas, with the (un)availability of opportunities a key blocker.

Parity of access

Our report finds that disadvantaged students are more likely to be interested in apprenticeship options, with 46 per cent from the most disadvantaged areas interested in this route compared to 41 per cent from the most advantaged areas. Those from lower socioeconomic backgrounds (63 per cent) are more likely to have considered apprenticeships while thinking about post-16 options than those from higher socioeconomic backgrounds (51 per cent).

However, despite this level of interest, we still see significant disparities in entry – with the Sutton Trust reporting that twice as many degree apprentices are from the wealthiest areas compared to the poorest.

As with undergraduate study, it’s vital we ensure these options are available to all – regardless of background. Within the report, we consider a range of recommendations on how we can support students from disadvantaged backgrounds to access apprenticeship routes, including greater support, and wider use of contextual information as part of the recruitment process.

Parity of award

In many respects, the advent of Degree Apprenticeships has brought parity in terms of award – students can now gain an undergraduate award through an apprenticeship. However, we continue to see differences in perception – 76 per cent of students view university degrees as “prestigious”, compared to just 4 per cent for apprenticeships, despite these being the same award in some instances.

For me, the answer to this is around high-quality careers information. We know that teachers and advisers are more confident talking about undergraduate study than they are apprenticeships. UCAS, along with a range of other organisations such as the Careers and Enterprise Company, are seeking to continue to provide these key influencers with the tools to advise on all pathways with confidence. The embedding of apprenticeships within the UCAS Hub, our personalised information and advice dashboard, with tailored content, will make a key contribution to enhancing this understanding.

Parity of connection

We know that students find it challenging to explore and connect to apprenticeship opportunities. While three in four students find it easy or somewhat easy to find information about applying for university study, this drops to just one in four for apprenticeships.

Some 50 per cent of our apprentices said they had a positive application experience compared to 90 per cent of placed university and college applicants. Furthermore, those that apply for more apprenticeship opportunities are more likely to report having a negative overall experience about applying to apprenticeships. These findings highlight the positive impact of the single UCAS university application and is why we are committed to developing an apprenticeship application service to transform the experience of students exploring this route.

Breaking down these application barriers will help provide this parity of connection – especially for those from disadvantaged backgrounds, who typically lack time, resource and support to apply to opportunities.

At UCAS, we believe that ensuring there is parity between university or college and apprenticeship pathways is vital, and we hope that the findings of this report, anchored in the reframing of the idea of parity itself, will act as an impetus for action. It is incumbent on the education and training sector to unite behind the concept of parity, to ensure that aspiring apprenticeships can realise their potential. It is through a concerned and system-wide effort that we will create a highly educated and skilled workforce of the future – with the Journey to a Million presenting an even greater impetus to do this.

3 responses to “We can achieve parity between apprenticeships and traditional degrees

  1. Degree Apprenticeships might have more impetus from HEIs if they were financially more attractive to deliver, as opposed to being loss-making.

  2. As an old apprentice, from when apprentices and apprenticeships were about learning a skilled trade whilst earning I think a lot of people in the sector have absolutely no idea of A. how apprenticeships should work, and B. how many young people view both the world of work and learning. As part of my apprenticeship I studied at a Higher College, that became a University, what was clear even then with the disconnect between those of us who were working apprentices and ‘normal’ students. The near constant preaching from school teachers about ‘going to University’ and having the ‘University experience’, along with apocryphal stories about their time at Uni has distorted expectations, the abuse of apprenticeships and the money attached to them by using them for ‘mature’ members of staff, rather then the younger one’s who could really benefit from one also distorts the picture.

  3. It’s a shame that more degree apprenticeships are not made available to school leavers within the healthcare sector. Nursing, occupational therapy, speech and language therapy etc. The vast majority of these apprenticeships are given to existing employees. We are told these are shortage occupations. Surely this would be a very attractive proposition for school leavers. Unfortunately they are not often able to apply.

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