As we begin National Apprenticeships Week, there’s a lot of discussion of how apprenticeships can support the government’s ‘levelling up’ strategy. Degree apprenticeships offer students the chance to graduate without the debt associated with university, but is take-up where it should be?
There were encouraging signs for degree apprenticeships this month when Amazon announced it would introduce more than 200 of them as part of a major apprenticeship recruitment strategy.
Amazon is not alone – the most recent data on apprenticeship starts from the Department for Education found that uptake of schemes at level 6 and 7 (which is degree-level), increased by 35% in the first quarter of 2021/22.
With so much focus on the government’s “levelling up” strategy and employers struggling to find skilled talent, this could mean attitudes are beginning to shift away from favouring traditional university graduates to creating “earn while you learn” opportunities for school leavers, and the chance to gain a degree without the debt and potential costs of living away from home.
Despite steadily increasing take-up, however, preconceptions remain that certain industries require a university degree to begin a career. Research from tech skills provider QA, for example, found that 60% of 16 to 24 year olds believed a degree was needed to start a career in tech.
Admissions service Ucas last week demanded that a lingering snobbery around degree apprenticeships among teachers and parents would need to be tackled in order for the courses to become more popular.
Ucas chief Clare Marchant told The Times that she would like to see changes to the system that would see prospective school leavers applying for both university and degree apprenticeship courses and viewing them on an equal footing.
Natasha Traynor, a director for apprenticeships at QA, thinks much of the issue can be attributed to media coverage around apprenticeships.
“The media narrative to date has largely presented this as a binary choice – an apprenticeship versus a university degree – but degree apprenticeships can offer a degree-level qualification while at the same time learning on the job,” she says.
“More awareness among school leavers would help make sure young people know this option exists when making post-school study and work decisions, while increased awareness among employers would help them bring new skills into their business without having to rely so heavily on graduates.”
Tom Taylor, head of Degrees at Work at Anglia Ruskin University, has worked with more than 500 employers on degree apprenticeships since the apprenticeship levy was introduced in 2017.
He believes there is still some way to go before perceptions change around starting an apprenticeship at 18.
“The understanding is still not as high as we’d like, it still feels novel for parents. We get questions around whether they apply to the company or the university, it’s a different way of thinking,” he says. “I have to explain that they graduate alongside everyone else who’s graduating from ARU, right down to the hat and the gown.”
From employers’ perspective, there can be concerns around how they will manage the 20% off-the-job learning requirement over a longer course period, but these can be overcome by embedding the degree apprenticeship pipeline into job design and workforce planning.
“There are sectors where there’s a tradition of university education alongside training, such as nursing, but in other areas they are creating new pathways into a career,” adds Taylor. “It requires a bit of thinking, but you’re bringing people in who are younger, you’re developing their skills and benefiting from them and because they’re with you for five years, they build loyalty.”
Lizzie Crowley, senior skills policy adviser at the CIPD, agrees: “The levy has stimulated more interest in longer-term and what would have been more expensive investments in training and development, but the longer duration means HR have more of a planning issue,” she explains.
“Someone will be spending 20% of their week off the job for a longer period of time, which is very different to a graduate route where someone might be on rotation for six months. It requires HR and managers to be clear that the role will be in place for the length of time required to complete the degree apprenticeship.”
You’re developing skills and benefiting from them and because [apprentices] are with you for five years, they build loyalty.” – Tom Taylor, Anglia Ruskin University
Highways engineering company Ringway Jacobs has 37 staff members undertaking degree apprenticeships with ARU in a range of areas including engineering, management and digital marketing.
Learning and development advisor Paul Haggerty has seen a shift in the role and level of apprenticeships. “It used to be that most apprentices would come in and do a Level 2 and finish it in six months or a year,” he says. “Now we’re more likely to see people pursue a degree apprenticeship while in work, or do their Level 3/A levels somewhere else before coming to us. It’s an incorrect stereotype that apprenticeships are just for lower levels, because many progress really well in their careers.”
Workers attend ARU in block release for a week of study each term, followed by supporting lectures and webinars online. The 20% off-the-job requirement is directed by line managers. “If they’ve committed for four or five years you nurture them and see them grow,” adds Haggerty.
Plugging skills gaps
A number of employers in sectors suffering from acute skills shortages are turning to apprenticeship routes to build a pipeline of talent, and that increasingly includes higher and degree apprenticeship options.
Research from accountancy firm Grant Thornton found that 86% of ‘mid-market’ companies are using apprenticeships to develop people, and 53% predicting they will expand their use of apprenticeships in 2022.
“High priority areas of digital skills, finance function talent attraction and upskilling, data analysis through to degree level, or management qualifications to retain top talent – all bring new skills into the business and are applicable to every organisation,” says Juliet Rix, head of talent solutions.
Technology consultancy FDM is one such employer. It will offer 500 new recruits degree level courses in high-demand areas including cyber security, software engineering and data science.
The initial stage of the programme has been developed in partnership with Sheffield Hallam University, but the company will partner with other universities in different locations in the coming weeks.
But it won’t just help FDM attract more young people into science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM) careers, it will also support its diversity and inclusion goals. The apprenticeship programme will operate with a 50:50 gender split, with many candidates coming from underrepresented backgrounds.
“We all have responsibility to contribute to the UK’s wider levelling up agenda and we hope that our new offering will transform the lives of hundreds of young people, spreading opportunity and access to a fantastic career across the whole country,” says FSM CEO Rod Flavell.
“Far too many talented young people from disadvantaged backgrounds miss out on a university education due to fears around tuition fees, a problem compounded by the chaos and disruption of the Covid-19 pandemic.”
Mark Creighton, CEO of apprenticeship provider Avado, believes the relevance of degree apprenticeships will grow as the government increases its support for lifelong learning.
“As we broaden this understanding, the take-up of degree apprenticeships will increase naturally with growing demands for their offerings,” he says. “They provide an opportunity to earn while you learn and support full-time employment. They combine full-time paid employment and university study as learners work towards a full Bachelor’s or Master’s degree in a variety of disciplines.”
Increasing social mobility is one of the most vaunted advantages of offering degree apprenticeships, with a ‘traditional’ university route of three years away from home financially out of reach for many due to the level of fees and cost of living.
Fifty percent of respondents to Grant Thornton’s survey believed apprenticeships had improved social mobility in their business. Investment bank Goldman Sachs recently announced a degree apprenticeship for traders, for example, “acknowledging that not all students wish to pursue the university route”.
“Research has shown that fear of debt from a conventional degree continues to be a very real barrier for lower and middle-class young people, thus impacting social mobility. Removing this barrier can only be a positive,” adds Traynor from QA.
One such study, Hidden Voices: Graduates from the Higher Education Policy Institute, last year showed graduates in England continue to feel tuition fees and loan interest rates are too high, and the repayment period “never-ending”.
Alongside widening access to many professions, Crowley from the CIPD believes that labour market trends will stimulate further rises in adoption of degree apprenticeships.
You need to think about the type of support you offer internally for that person, particularly if you don’t have experience of bringing people in straight from school or college.” – Lizzie Crowley, CIPD
“Lots of employers are worried about access to skills and retention of workers at the moment,” she says. “Apprenticeships are a great way to support higher levels of retention as well as build those skills for the future.” Many employers see the value in building leadership and management capability for existing employees through this route, she adds.
And while bringing in degree apprentices straight from school and college will undoubtedly diversify your recruitment intake, that also requires a more supportive approach.
Crowley continues: “Young people and parents are starting to see the advantage of following an apprenticeship over going to university, so we’ll see a supply of candidates coming in.
“But you need to think about the type of support you offer internally for that person, particularly if you don’t have experience of bringing people in straight from school or college.
“The first six months of that transition are really important so think about actions such as peer to peer mentoring, or offering help with financial management. Without the right support in place, you’ll see this in your retention rates and it’s a wasted investment for you and a poor experience for that young person.”