What's going wrong with Degree Apprenticeships?
By Tom Pinder
Last week’s report from the Office for Students (OfS) shows that white students from more affluent areas are more likely to study degree apprenticeships, despite the fact that one of the key reasons for launching the scheme was to widen access to higher education for the most disadvantaged students. The scheme, paid for jointly by the employer and the government, combines paid work with study with the further aim of filling skill gaps in the UK market, but has the largest uptake from young people from advantaged backgrounds than any other, at 28 per cent. The OfS also found that 87 per cent of apprentices studying were white.
So what’s going wrong here, if we agree that something is going wrong at all? And more’s the point, how can we address this imbalance and encourage more students for whom the apprenticeships were most intended to apply?
Though they were launched in 2015 degree apprenticeships have taken a relatively long time to hit the public consciousness, and there’s still work to be done in simply raising awareness of them in the first place. This stumbling out of the gate hampered their initial promotion considerably, to the extent that almost from day one they have been caught playing a game of catch up with themselves. This slow and uncertain unveiling, coupled with a dearth of providers at the time, hamstrung their development into the market and did little to dissuade those who were aware of the scheme of the belief that they were nothing more than a ‘second-class qualification’. Herein lies a certain irony – the apprenticeship places are being gobbled up by those who traditionally viewed them with no small air of snobbery.
In the light of their soft relaunch in 2017 there has been a marked increase in advertising and, more importantly, more providers offering degree apprenticeships overall, with new ones adding them to their course portfolios on an increasing basis. Over 100 institutions are now on the register of apprenticeship training providers with the majority offering at least one DA course, with more soon to follow, including an increasing number of Russell Group universities. Part of the slowness of uptake has been due to the administrative complexities involved, but the scheme represents a real opportunity for institutions to forge closer and stronger links with employers, especially those in their local area.
Yet overall interest and enrolment in the scheme has been below expected with the majority of enrolees being from traditionally white, affluent areas. Part of this is still down to awareness and perception. A 2017 survey highlighted that, of 1,000 parents of 11-18 asked, only 20% were aware of the scheme. A quarter of parents from the highest educated and socio-economic strata were aware of them, but this fell to just 10% of parents from lower socio-economic backgrounds. Sir Peter Lampl, founder and Chairman of the Sutton Trust said: “It is worrying to see that those from advantaged backgrounds are more likely to access higher level apprenticeships than disadvantaged young people”, adding, “Two-thirds of teachers advise their students not to opt for higher level apprenticeships. We need to do much more to turn this around.”
Equally, Nicola Dandridge, chief executive of the OfS said: “Degree apprenticeships have the potential to make a big difference to students and employers across the country and to give a real boost to local and regional economies. It is vital to widen opportunities for disadvantaged learners to access and succeed in degree apprenticeships, and there is further to go to encourage minority ethnic and disabled learners to follow this route.
“We need to ensure that prospective apprentices have high-quality information, advice and guidance about their options, and more generally to raise the profile and reputation of degree apprenticeships.
“Now that the groundwork has been done, we look forward to seeing further increases in the numbers of high-quality degree apprenticeships.”
Alongside their perception and position in the market, a key difference between DAs and traditional academic degrees is that the bulk of the recruitment to DAs is handled by the employers’ HR and recruitment teams, not the institutions’. The company is responsible for promoting the opportunity to the student, with applications being sent directly to them, and not through UCAS. Though institutions have worked hard in recent years to become more welcoming spaces and expand their WP and access offerings, this aspect is lost as the individual deals directly with the company, whose own inclusion and outreach practices may not be as robust. UCAS has stated that it may look to offer DAs within the next two to three years, thus providing a familiar platform for applicants more in line with their peers’ HE application experience, but until then there still exists a greater chance of disenfranchisement in the resultant us-and-them or haves-and-have nots landscape.
Engaging the ‘right’ students then is a matter of urgency, or DAs risk becoming nothing more than state-funded nepotism, further tipping the scales in favour of those who progress because of what they already have, not what they can bring. UCAS looking to get some skin the game represents a move in the right direction (my own misgivings about UCAS aside, but if one organisation has a near monopoly of the HE application process, that process should include all the available HE options), but as stated this is two years or more from becoming a reality.
“We need to ensure that prospective apprentices have high-quality information, advice and guidance about their options, and more generally to raise the profile and reputation of degree apprenticeships."
More immediately, universities and businesses need to work together more closely to extol the virtues of the programme in tandem with one another, and not leave the scheme floating around the space between them in their efforts to recruit. Moreover, with that recruitment sitting with the businesses and not the institutions, more should be done to ensure fairness across the application process, for example introducing blind hiring, or better understanding if the language used in the recruitment pack is more masculine or feminine-coded. These practices are becoming more common, but they require consistent application across organisations throughout the entire process to ensure complete parity, equality, and equity for all candidates.
That’s not to say universities can shirk their responsibility here either. They need to ensure that their degree apprenticeships are marketed alongside their existing course portfolio as an equal and alternative option, not as an afterthought or lumped in with short courses or similar. In many ways this echoes the continuing class-war between public perceptions of A Level and BTEC qualifications, but one advantage of the low awareness is that here institutions have a fresh chance to redress the balance of this relationship.
On the whole, degree apprenticeships represent a fantastic opportunity to broaden access to higher education. Work experience is valued as much as academic excellence by many modern employers, if not more so in a majority of cases, and a degree apprenticeship marries this with a level of academic rigour that reinforces the on-the-job learning. But understanding the profile of those enrolled in the scheme is paramount to achieving both success for the system and the individuals it is designed to most benefit. Without a thorough review of the programme there is a real danger degree apprenticeships could only widen the already considerable opportunity and achievement gap.