Is the UK on the verge of a new age of apprenticeships?

The United Kingdom could be on the verge of a higher education and training revolution with interest soaring in degree and graduate apprenticeships which are soon expected to be listed alongside university degrees on the Universities and Colleges Admissions Service (UCAS) website.

With the number of UK 18-year-old higher education applicants down at the end of the main application period on 30 June this year and some experts predicting the largest ever fall in English 18-year-old student entry rates, down from 37.2% a week after A-level results last year to 35.6% at the same point this year, is the UK poised for a new age for apprenticeships?

Apprenticeships have their champions in high places, led by the Education Secretary Gillian Keegan. She was appointed to Rishi Sunak’s cabinet last year with all the right credentials, having left school at the age of 16 for an apprenticeship with Delco Electronics on Merseyside, part of General Motors, and going on to do a degree at Liverpool John Moores University.

In an opinion piece under the headline “You don’t have to do a degree, you can do an apprenticeship like me” for the The Sun, a right-wing British tabloid newspaper, two days after A-level results day, she attacked former Labour prime minister Tony Blair for his “arbitrary target” of getting 50% of young people into university, saying: “Sometimes it did more harm than good.”

Perhaps the second part of The Sun’s headline should have been “You can do both an apprenticeship and degree like me”, but they ran out of space.

Her sidekick, the Minister for Skills, Apprenticeships and Higher Education Robert Halfon, is even more of an enthusiast, devoting his maiden speech as a new MP in the House of Commons to the virtues of apprenticeships and launching a new UCAS service called the ‘Get in, go far’ campaign to encourage more employers to take on apprentices.

Too few employers involved

And therein lies an obstacle to vocational education revolutionaries like Keegan and Halfon: Not enough employers are yet on board and there is a dire shortage of apprenticeship places to meet the growing demand and interest.

There are also some apparent contradictions in government policy, with the well-established BTECs (specialist work-related qualifications offered by the Business and Technology Education Council) being phased out and replaced by T-levels, which are designed as a new two-year technical alternative to the more academic A-levels.

This year’s figures show that nearly half of students enrolled in health and science T-levels dropped out of their course, a point seized on by the Labour Party and described in a tweet as “an existential problem for the qualification” by former Conservative government education special advisor Iain Mansfield, who is now director of research and head of education and science at the right-leaning Policy Exchange.

The comparative dropout rates were 5% for A-levels, 9% for tech levels, 8% dropouts for ‘applied generals’ and 33% for T-levels overall.

Gap between rhetoric and policy

Nick Hillman, another former special adviser, albeit in the early days of the Conservative administration when David Willetts was universities and science minister, told University World News: “I think there is a substantial gap between the positive rhetoric on vocational education and hard policy.”

“For example, BTECs are being defunded while degree apprenticeships for young people remain in very small supply. So if vocational education is to be a Tory strapline for 2024, they may need to come up with some more substantial policies to match the ministerial rhetoric,” said Hillman, who is now director of the Higher Education Policy Institute (HEPI).

A similar criticism was made by Professor Graeme Atherton, head of the Centre for Levelling Up at the University of West London, and director of the National Education Opportunities Network (NEON), which has organised a series of annual World Access to Higher Education events with international partners.

He told University World News there is “a demand and supply issue with degree apprenticeships” with limited capacity of employers to support them.

Fees paid, but options narrowed

“While the idea of having your fees paid is attractive to most students, the majority also want to pursue a university subject that widens their options and not narrows them as degree apprenticeships may do,” said Atherton.

Atherton backed efforts by HEPI and others to save BTECs, which have fallen out of favour with the current Conservative administration, saying: “They are an important route into higher education for those from widening access backgrounds.”

Specifically on apprenticeships, he said: “If the government wants to encourage far more, then it should focus on supporting employers to engage – for example by making the apprenticeship levy more flexible, rather than criticising universities for not doing enough, which is consistent with the approach taken across all aspects of higher education since 2019.”

Communication challenge

Getting students and their parents as well as employers, politicians and other stakeholders to fully understand what is involved in creating apprenticeships and realise that universities and colleges can’t simply magic-up extra graduate apprenticeships as they can additional spots on degrees can be a very real communication challenge.

The first message to get across is that apprentices are employees first and foremost and not full-time students.

Those doing a degree apprenticeship will spend most of their time working, and will study part-time at university one or two days per week, or in short blocks. “Overall, they spend about 20% of their time studying compared to 80% of their time working,” explained a UCAS spokesperson.

The University of Sunderland is among the higher education institutions promoting vocationally tailored alternatives alongside traditional degree courses and their Head of Marketing Jane Robinson told University World News: “Designed by employers, universities and professional bodies, degree apprenticeships deliver high-end skills and offer a tailored alternative to a traditional degree course.”

She said Sunderland is developing degree apprenticeship programmes with a range of employers, including the National Health Service (NHS) in the North East of England and Newcastle Building Society.

Midwifery degree apprenticeship

The University of Greenwich in London is another working closely with local health authorities and was one of three pilot sites selected to test the possibility of running a Midwifery Degree Apprenticeship by Health Education England back in 2019.

It is now working with 13 NHS trusts across London and the South East to help make up for the shortfall in students studying nursing and midwifery following the government decision in 2017 to scrap the NHS Bursary Scheme for nursing students, which led to a huge reduction in the number of mature students applying for places, explained Sue Lawrence, senior lecturer in midwifery at the University of Greenwich.

Those studying midwifery are usually mature students and ideal for the degree apprenticeship model of learning, said Lawrence.

Greenwich is part of the 16-strong University Alliance of professional and technical universities and its Chief Executive Vanessa Wilson told University World News: “Our speciality is working in partnership with industry to deliver applied teaching and research, so supporting degree apprenticeships is a no-brainer.”

Places ‘like gold dust’

Wilson said: “Demand for degree apprenticeships is growing fast in the UK, and the next big challenge is how to grow capacity. Currently, there are not enough degree apprentice vacancies to meet demand and degree apprenticeships are like gold dust for 18-year-old school leavers.

“The vital piece of the puzzle here is employers: degree apprenticeships are essentially jobs, and they cannot exist without employers.

“Government must do much more to help employers understand degree apprenticeships, and to remove the barriers to small businesses becoming degree apprentice providers.

“This should include reducing the high levels of complex bureaucracy involved in registering as a degree apprenticeship provider and adjusting the apprenticeship levy to provide more support for small and medium-sized businesses.”

UCAS Chief Executive Clare Marchant told University World News that 40% of all UCAS undergraduate applicants now say they are interested in an apprenticeship role, which could translate into about 430,000 potential apprentices if only there were the places available.

She said UCAS is working with employers and universities to help students discover and explore degree apprenticeships and increase the supply to better meet demand.

Apprenticeship vacancies on UCAS hub

To this end, UCAS will list apprenticeship vacancies on its student-focused hub alongside university degrees from this autumn.

And, from autumn 2024, UCAS applicants will be able to apply for apprenticeships, directly via UCAS, as well as continue to be able to apply for university degree courses to keep their options open.

Meanwhile, watching the growing focus on vocational higher education and training with keen interest are organisations such as Coursera, the micro-credentials experts.

While they do not work with employers on apprenticeships, they are helping businesses and organisations, such as the NHS and tech giants like Google, support learners in developing new skills.

Hadi Moussa, Coursera’s managing director for Europe, the Middle East, and Africa, told University World News that learners can “stack” micro-credentials, such as the Google IT Support Certificate, which can count towards the University of London’s BSc in Computer Science.

It is yet another route to vocationally orientated higher qualification without amassing a student loan debt or having to commit to working for an employer just to get an ‘earn-as-you-learn’ degree, he suggested, and means options are widening for both young people and older learners wanting to re-skill and gain higher qualifications.

Nic Mitchell is a UK-based freelance journalist and PR consultant specialising in European and international higher education. He blogs at www.delacourcommunications.com.