Minister concerned by appeal of degree apprenticeships for affluent

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The growth in degree apprenticeships has led to fears that disadvantaged young people are losing out in favour of those with more affluent backgrounds, skills minister Gillian Keegan said this week.

Addressing the House of Commons education select committee, Keegan said: “There is a growth in degree apprenticeships, but the very important point is how we make them more accessible to more disadvantaged groups.

The middle classes are increasingly questioning whether £50,000 of debt for an academic degree is worth it, so it’s no surprise that they are attracted to debt-free degree apprenticeships where they can also learn on the job” – Jane Hickie, AELP chief executive

“What we are fearful of is that a lot of people will suddenly see that degree apprenticeships are a very good option and people who would have gone to university anyway would just choose that route and squeeze out people like me, sat in a comprehensive school at 16, with nowhere to go thinking ‘how do I get on in life?’.”

Concerns that apprenticeships are increasingly benefitting people who would have gone to university anyway or who had sufficient work experience to develop fruitful careers are not new. Three years ago Keegan’s predecessor Anne Milton conceded that fears of a “middle-class grab” on apprenticeships were “valid” following a steep rise in starts at degree levels while the lower levels dropped off.

Some apprenticeship bodies, such as the Association of Employment and Learning Providers (AELP), say that the huge cost of degrees is bound to make degree apprenticeships more attractive to people of all classes.

Degree apprenticeships were first offered in September 2015 and have increased in popularity, with starts at level 4 and above increasing threefold since then and now accounting for a quarter of all starts according to Department of Health data. Over the same period level 2 starts, which accounted for more than half of all starts in 2014-15, fell to just 31% by 2019-20.

There was also a decline in apprenticeships going to young people as a whole over that period: a fall from 265,000 to just 171,600 among people aged between 16 and 24.

Keegan also warned the select committee that tinkering with the degree apprenticeship system to get more people from diverse backgrounds applying could lead to worse outcomes.

“Many employers are switching from graduate programmes to degree apprenticeships because they have seen they get better results. You quite often get unintended consequences when the government intervenes in various bits of this system,” Keegan said.

“This is about getting a system that transforms technical education in this country, that makes sure it is accessible to everybody no matter where they are in the country, no matter their background, no matter their ethnicity and whatever their journey is.”

AELP chief executive Jane Hickie said: “The middle classes are increasingly questioning whether £50,000 of debt for an academic degree is worth it, so it’s no surprise that they are attracted to debt-free degree apprenticeships where they can also learn on the job. AELP supports the growth in degree apprenticeships but the apprenticeship levy system needs to be rebalanced to ensure the continuation of the strong element of social inclusion which apprenticeships have traditionally offered.”

Tom Richmond, director of education think-tank EDSK, said: “As previously predicted by EDSK and many others, the unintended consequences of the apprenticeship levy are now plain for all to see. It is astonishing that the government acknowledges that younger recruits, particularly those from the most disadvantaged backgrounds, are being pushed out of the apprenticeship system yet they have done little, if anything, to address this.

“If the levy funds are being consumed by older and experienced employees at the expense of younger and less experienced workers, there will be severe repercussions for ‘levelling up’, social mobility and economic productivity.”

Calls for reform of degree apprenticeships go back several years. In 2019 Universities UK published a report calling for government action to reform the system. It said: “Degree apprenticeships are a success story. The number of people starting degree apprenticeships is rapidly increasing, the range of apprenticeships on offer is broadening and the first degree apprentices have recently graduated. But progress developing degree apprenticeships in England is being held back by poor levels of awareness among school pupils, parents and employers.”

In March this year the CIPD published a report labelling the apprenticeship levy a failure by all measures.

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