We should be celebrating the growth of degree apprenticeships – not denigrating it

To hear FE sector leaders you’d think there were too many degree apprenticeships when. In fact there are too few, writes Mandy Crawford-Lee

To hear FE sector leaders you’d think there were too many degree apprenticeships when. In fact there are too few, writes Mandy Crawford-Lee

10 Jun 2023, 5:00

Reading through FE Week’s article earlier this month on the growth of degree apprenticeship I couldn’t help but think that I live in some sort of parallel universe. 

The article outlined how degree apprenticeship spending “hit half a billion (pounds) last year” and “swallowed a fifth of DfE’s (apprenticeship) budget in 21/22.” The article then went on to outline how ‘experts’ warn that: “the rapid rise in their share of the market is squeezing out opportunities for younger workers and threatens the sustainability of the apprenticeship budget”. 

But is this right?  And shouldn’t the FE sector be celebrating the growth of degree apprenticeships and higher apprenticeships at the level of a bachelor’s or master’s degree?

Beyond the FE sector, others are pushing for more degree apprenticeships. For example, in March the government asked the higher education regulator, the Office for Students (OfS), to establish a £40m Degree Apprenticeship Development Fund to grow capacity. 

Degree apprenticeships are being used to train the police officers, registered nurses, allied health and adult social care professionals and social workers that the public sector and society need. In the private sector, degree level apprenticeships are a key programme to develop the highly skilled engineers (of various types), digital specialists and scientists. The growth of degree apprenticeship is a key government policy.

Let’s look at some of the facts:

In the list of the top ten degree level apprenticeships listed by FE Week, police constable is at number four, registered nurse number five, advanced clinical practitioner, number eight, teacher number nine and social worker at number ten.  Are we really saying police forces shouldn’t spend their apprenticeship levy funds on training, through apprenticeships, new police constables, the NHS on nurses, local authorities on social workers and schools on teachers? Surely there is no better use of apprenticeship funds.

We would suggest doubling the spend on degree level apprenticeships

At number two in the top ten degree level apprenticeships is the senior leader and at number three is the chartered manager. Look at any analysis of skills gaps and shortages in the UK and the deficit in management skills will always feature. UVAC believes that the sector making most use of management apprenticeships is the NHS; which is also the organisation paying the most apprenticeship levy. With substantial pressure on the NHS, drawing on the levy to train managers and senior leaders to manage the organisation is an excellent use of the apprenticeship budget.

It is also important to note that many level 3 apprenticeships are costly to deliver.  The move from apprenticeship frameworks to apprenticeships standards has raised quality but has also raised the cost of apprenticeships. Many level 3 apprenticeships, particularly in STEM occupations, are costly to deliver and have been allocated high funding bands. 

Finally, a 20 per cent spend on degree level apprenticeships means a whacking (and arguably questionable) 80 per cent of the apprenticeship budget is spent on apprenticeships at level 2 (GCSE level) to level 5 (HND / Foundation Degree level).

In policy terms there are two key drivers for apprenticeships: productivity and social mobility. Degree level apprenticeships are a key tool to tackle skills gaps and shortages at levels 6 and 7 – vital if the UK is to develop as a high-skill, high-productivity and high-pay economy. 

If we are to use apprenticeships as a real tool for social mobility, we also need to use degree level apprenticeships to open progression routes to the professions, higher pay and senior level occupations. We should also prioritise apprenticeships that will support the move to a net zero economy, which again means greater use of several key degree level apprenticeships.

The real issue that needs highlighting is why such a low proportion of the apprenticeship budget is currently spent on degree level apprenticeships. Indeed, UVAC would suggest a doubling of the apprenticeship budget spend on degree level apprenticeships to 40 per cent is easily justified by skills, productivity, social mobility and net zero arguments.

It’s too little, not too much of the apprenticeship budget that is currently spent in this area. But of course, some will quite correctly point out that it’s the overall size of the pot that is the root problem.

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One comment

  1. This article is typical of the horribly divisive mindset that years of budget constraints have had.

    Instead of considering what the ideal mix and balance should be, the starting point for opinion forming is to take aim at other provision and make it out as being lesser.

    As for productivity and social mobility, the number of degree educated individuals is and has been at records for over a decade, yet productivity is a ‘puzzle’ and social mobility metrics are worsening. The received wisdom on links between the level of educational attainment, productivity and life chances no longer stacks up. They’ve just become lazy buzzwords.

    At least degree apprenticeships mean people can avoid the numerical disadvantages of student debt, a positive for social mobility, but most of the provision goes to existing staff members, who tend to be older and more affluent, which dilutes it somewhat.

    If the higher levels are also more expensive and displaces disproportionately more participation at lower levels, then it’s easy to understand why those operating at lower levels hold valid concerns.