Who really does apprenticeships?

Though apprenticeships (and higher level apprenticeships, in particular) are a good thing, they are not a silver bullet for social mobility.

David Kernohan is Deputy Editor of Wonkhe

Updated 30/11/23: the charts now include a full year of data for 2022-23

The popular perception, especially among politicians, is that apprenticeships represent an investment in a more equitable route to a “good job” for the half of the young population that would never consider (for cultural or financial reasons) a traditional university course.

As some of the more engaged coverage has noted, this is not true.

In the majority of subject areas, degree level (level 4 to level 6) apprenticeships tend to be taken by students from less deprived backgrounds. Masters level (level 7) apprenticeships are done almost entirely in the business subject area by the most advantaged group of students.

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Engineering related apprenticeships – as most recently praised in the Autumn Statement – are most likely to be taken at Level 3 (equivalent to A level) by the most advantaged groups of students. Just over 3,000 in total started an engineering apprenticeship to level 6 in the last year of data, roughly the same number at level 4 and almost none at level 5. And in most cases, it is well off students who are benefiting

Completion rates for degree level apprenticeships are low – with less than a thousand students from the most deprived background completing a degree level (4-6) apprenticeship in 2021-22 (the last complete year of data).

Over time we have seen patterns reversed – though completions were more likely among disadvantaged groups in 2017-18, by 2021-22 the top two quintiles were far more likely to complete an apprenticeship at any level.

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It is also a mistake to see apprenticeships as an alternate route to a higher level qualification for disadvantaged young people. At all levels apprentices tend to 25 and above, with this pattern becoming more pronounced as you move down the deprivation quintiles. And it is not even true to say that lower level apprenticeships are for younger people with the higher level preferred by mature learners (though this is slightly more accurate among the better off).

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Far from being a new route into skilled work for underserved groups, apprenticeships currently serve as an alternative to traditional degree-level study for better off mature students. It’s the opposite of what we think of when we hear the word “degree apprenticeship”, and the gap between perception and reality has coloured the debate about expansion.

Clearly the future of UK skills policy needs to have apprenticeships in the mix. But it is not clear that the system we have is the system we need.

3 responses to “Who really does apprenticeships?

  1. Helpful data. It does refer to Covid peak tie and furlough etc. Yes apprenticeships are needed. Any comparison internationally? Reviews of how HEIs/colleges have tried to work with empoyers and the standards…..Who can influence the culture and get changes….?

    1. There are two types of market place an internal market and an export in an export market you have to compete with China and India something we cannot do without tarrifs both of these country’s have tarrifs of there own there is no such thing as a free market place

    2. My eldest did a degree apprenticeship & my youngest is in his last year of a more technical route. The schools do not promote apprenticeships & push most students down the university route. This needs to change going forward.
      There are so many fab companies out their offering higher & degree apprenticeships. No debt & work experience, it’s a win win.

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