The Government’s continued failure to deliver on its own apprenticeship take-up target is, in part, a symptom of its failure to properly inform school leavers of the realities of higher education, warns Lawrence Barton

The Government is failing to achieve its own targets for the take-up of apprenticeships. Meanwhile, the symbolic target of 50 per cent of people going to university was met at the start of this academic year, 20 years after first being announced by the Blair government. Aside from the contrast in political effort to meet these targets, the bias towards university is reinforced by poor information about the relative value of these alternative pathways. In essence, taxpayers and students alike are being misled.

While the number of apprenticeship starts has increased from 2017/18 to 2018/19, figures remain down on those preceding the introduction of the apprenticeship levy in May 2017. In 2018/19, 19 per cent (75,100) of learners started at a higher level compared to 13 per cent the year before. But despite this growth, the take-up of higher apprenticeships is relatively modest.

If we compare the recent trend for apprenticeship growth to that for higher education a different picture emerges. Barring a dip following the introduction of the Government’s tuition fees reform, over the past ten years 18-year-old entry rates have consistently increased. In 2018, the 18-year-old entry rate stood at a record high of 33 per cent.

Yes, even the fanfare about the 50 per cent target is somewhat misleading. The DfE’s figure counts people set to go to university up to the age of 30, not school leaver entrants as might be expected.Contrasting perceptions of apprenticeships and university degrees are a significant driver behind the disparity in uptake. A large proportion of young people and their parents remain wedded to the idea that university is the key to a successful and prosperous future, unaware of other avenues open to them.

Policymakers often herald the ‘graduate premium’. In 2017 university graduates earned on average £10,000 more than the average non-graduate. But this figure is misleading. It makes no account of the institution attended, the subject studied, the degree classification obtained, or the premium relative to other qualifications. It lumps the earnings of a Cambridge educated particle physicist in with those of somebody with an Honours degree in ‘Drawing’ from Falmouth University.

Taxpayers and students alike are being misled

A 2014 independent analysis by the Million Jobs campaign investigated these nuances between graduate and apprenticeship earnings. It estimated that over a third of all graduates (39 per cent) enjoyed lifetime earnings below those of the average higher apprentice. While nearly half (46 per cent) of those from post-1992 universities earned less than higher apprentices.

The study found these differences become amplified when subject studied is examined. For some ‘new’ university courses, such as media studies, as many as three-quarters of graduates earned less than the average higher apprentice.

The study is not conclusive. It relies on various estimates and patches together data sets from different sources to produce its estimates. Nevertheless, it raises significant questions that remain unanswered. The Government and the Office for National Statistics (ONS) have taken steps to improve the granular detail in terms of graduate outcomes, but shortcomings make it difficult to determine trends from year to year and to compare these to those of apprentices.

There is also yet to be movement on the publication of loan repayment rates by institution attended. Surely, both the prospective student and the taxpayer are owed a duty as to the likely outcome of their investment?

While attitudes towards apprenticeships are changing, there remains much work to be done. The lack of a coherent, detailed evidence-based case with which to go head-to-head with universities is hampering the industry’s ability to challenge misconceptions that remain prevalent in the minds of many school-leavers, parents and teachers. It is only when these misconceptions are addressed that we will begin to see the uptake of higher-level apprenticeships at the rate that is required for them to make a meaningful contribution to our economy.

This call to action comes at an opportune moment. The Prime Minister’s Chief Adviser, Dominic Cummings, has recently outlined his own ambitions for a more informed, data-driven approach to Government decision making. Accurate and transparent information about the relative outcomes of further and higher education is an excellent place to start.