A new report published recently by the social mobility charity the Sutton Trust, has claimed that higher-level apprenticeships are being snapped up by the middle classes and have become as sought after as a traditional university degree.
Technical education has long struggled with its reputation in this country. Technical and vocational programmes, such as apprenticeships, have consistently played second fiddle to a traditional university degree, despite various governments trying to address this through a number of policies and awareness campaigns.
Launched in 2016, higher and degree apprenticeships were billed as an alternative route to a degree and one without the traditional associated costs. Apprentices are employed and learn on the job, completing study blocks at university and it’s all paid for by the employer and the government through the Apprenticeship Levy. The apprentice receives a degree at the end and usually a guaranteed job.
It was hoped they would be attractive to those from lower income backgrounds who faced barriers, including financial barriers, to applying to university.
But the Sutton Trust’s report suggests that higher-level apprenticeships are less accessible than the traditional university route for those from disadvantaged families.
The report found only five per cent of those starting a degree apprenticeship in 2020-21 were from lower income homes, compared with 6.7 per cent of those going to university to study an undergraduate degree.
One striking quote from the report is that ‘more prosperous areas have benefited disproportionately from the expansion of degree apprenticeships’ and that those from low-income backgrounds ‘are less able to access the most financially rewarding apprenticeships’.
Whilst this report examines the national picture, my experience at my own university, Sheffield Hallam, could not be in more stark contrast.
Of the 2,000 plus apprentices currently on courses at Sheffield Hallam, almost half (45 per cent) are from the most disadvantaged backgrounds.
Anecdotally, a lot of our apprentices are first in family to go to university and tell us they would not have accessed higher education if it was not for the Degree Apprenticeship programme.
There is also a higher proportion of mature learners upskilling or retraining – an option that may not have been open to them without the apprenticeship route.
As a university offering one of the widest portfolios of degree apprenticeships in the country, we have long championed parity of esteem for apprenticeships with a traditional university degree.
However, I am conscious that we need to be careful what we wish for. We are now quickly finding ourselves in a position where degree apprenticeships are a sought-after commodity and, as in many different work and education situations, where that exists it is likely that those with more social capital are more likely to maximise opportunities.
At Sheffield Hallam, we are activity working with employers to ensure that this is not the case through developing appropriate recruitment practices and supporting them in understanding the strategic benefit in diversifying their workforce – many are embracing this and are activity recruiting in a new way.
We are supporting students from disadvantaged backgrounds into careers in engineering, digital and management, working with international employers including Nestle, JCB and IBM.
The employers we work with are also supporting the wider skills agenda by enabling employees to upskill or retrain when leaving paid employment would not be an option. Again, by working with employers to encourage them to retain talent and build their own pipeline we are ensuring a fairer process.
I strongly believe degree apprenticeships can have a transformative impact on individuals and society more broadly. They are expanding into sectors where we need new talent – engineering, contstruction, health - and offer a genuine alterative to a traditional undergraduate degree.
To have reached a point where young people are vying for degree apprenticeship shows just how far they’ve come in terms of their prestige and awareness among young people.
As a university that was one of the first to offer degree apprenticeships in 2016, we have the experience and partnerships in place to ensure fair access – and our statistics back that up.
But we need employers, policy makers and apprenticeship providers across the country to ensure degree apprenticeships are an accessible option for people from all backgrounds.
Having an education minister who herself is a former apprentice gives me huge hope for the future of technical and vocational qualifications and their prominence in government education policy.
Higher and degree apprenticeship are a modern qualification that work for employers, employees and society. They were not envisaged to be elitist or the reserve of those with more social capital, they are for everyone, and its imperative they remains that way.