With the cost of new tuition fee arrangements seeming to hit the popularity of higher education, EAL’s Ann Watson looks at the rising star of apprenticeships.

The end of 2012 brought with it revealing figures from two of the most important bodies in the UK’s education sector.

For the first time, the National Apprenticeship Service (NAS) revealed the number of apprenticeship applications through its online database.

Meanwhile, UCAS also announced the number of higher education applications.

The findings are an indicator of a slowly-evolving education landscape in the UK, with the vocational pathway becoming a valuable option for an increasing number of people, making dents in academia’s image as the number one gateway into fulfilling, highly-skilled careers.

New data released by NAS at the start of 2013 showed there were almost 1.13m
apprenticeship applications last year for around 106,000 vacancies in the organisation’s online database.

UCAS also published its End of Cycle Report 2012, which showed that overall demand for higher education had weakened, with applications dropping 6.6 per cent to 653,600.

Those applying were the first to do so under the UK’s new HE fee arrangements and policies, the majority of universities are now charging around £9,000 a year.

The prospect of tens of thousands of pounds’ debt after three years of education with no guarantee of a job at the end has clearly had an impact on students’ decision making.

However, the availability of other options, such as high quality apprenticeships, is also having an impact.

The government has put in place a number of policies to help promote apprenticeships, give employers support, and review programmes that do not meet required standards.

For example, there will be at least another 12 months of £1,500 grants for SMEs that have never taken on an apprentice or have not recruited one in over a year. NAS has conducted reviews of more than 80 cases of providers running short duration apprenticeships following the introduction of new rules stating they should last at least 12 months for 16 to 18-year-olds.

And higher level apprenticeships are gaining further support, providing routes into a greater range of careers — the latest including accounting, insurance and law.

One of the biggest barriers to wide scale acceptance of apprenticeships as a premier route into highly-skilled careers is perception among schools, parents and learners. But, as NAS figures demonstrate, this is slowly changing.

It is also vital that more employers are encouraged to take on apprentices and are made aware of the benefits, as the number of applications is more than ten times greater than advertised apprenticeship places.

Overall, demand for higher education has weakened”

Within EAL’s industry sectors, manufacturing proved extremely popular, with almost 42,000 applications for only 3,500 vacancies on the NAS online database.

Business and administration was the most popular, with more than 300,000 applications for fewer than 27,000 vacancies.

This presents a great recruitment opportunity for employers, as there is clearly huge demand for quality apprenticeship places.

Unemployment is still lingering at incredibly high levels and young people in particular need greater opportunities to get on the career ladder.

Combined with skills shortages in sectors such as engineering, apprenticeships are an ideal solution for employers and young people alike.

As an awarding organisation, EAL works with businesses in our sectors, as well as schools and training providers, to ensure apprenticeships are finely tuned to meet skills needs and offer genuine value for both learners and employers.

Creating more of these high quality apprenticeship opportunities is a priority.

As their popularity increases, however, we must be ever watchful of standards.

Apprenticeships must continue to rival higher education — and in some cases, surpass academia altogether — providing learners with alternative pathways into engineering, manufacturing, construction, business, law and a range of other professions.

Ann Watson, Excellence, Achievement and Learning (EAL) managing director