January saw the release of the latest apprenticeship starts figures and the publication of the Degree Apprenticeships Up to Standard? report by the Higher Education Commission. Both publications have led to growing concerns that apprenticeships aren’t having the desired impact in terms of providing opportunities for young aspiring apprentices, particularly from disadvantaged backgrounds.
While the latest apprenticeship start figures show a 15% increase on the same period last year (August-October), when compared over a longer time frame this figure represents a decrease of 15.2% and 13.8% compared to this time in 2016/17 and 2015/16, before the introduction of the apprenticeship levy. It also shows that the number of those aged 25+ starting apprenticeships has increased by 43% this quarter while under-19 starts have declined by 2%. This is part of an ongoing trend which has seen starts among the youngest apprentices fall by 23% over the last four years – a higher proportion than any other age group.
When focusing on degree apprenticeships (DAs) the HE Commission report expresses concern in terms of social mobility about a about a lack of opportunities, particularly for young disadvantaged people, outside of large conurbations. It also raises concerns about a “middle class grab” of degree apprenticeships.
What can be done then to improve the number of young people, particularly from disadvantaged backgrounds, embarking on DAs? At the risk of stating the obvious we need more employers prepared to take on more young apprentices. Numbers of DAs, while growing, are still limited in number. Some larger employers have simply re-packaged their graduate schemes as DAs while others offer them to existing staff. Our own mapping of externally advertised vacancies in Greater London indicates that numbers have yet to recover from pre-Levy introduction levels. The HE Commission report makes a number of recommendations to help increase the number of DAs, including removing barriers and encouraging employers, particularly SMEs to offer them. As highlighted in the report, one key aspect is that employers should be able to use the apprenticeship Levy more flexibly, to enable employers the opportunity to offer incremental learning opportunities at level 4 and above, leading onto a degree but with “stop off points” where desired. We also need to find ways to incentivise employers to take on young apprentices, especially from disadvantaged backgrounds. At present, there are no requirements for employers to use a proportion of the Levy to recruit apprentices, as opposed to putting existing employees on apprenticeships, including DAs, as many have done so.
We also need a UCAS-style applications portal for apprenticeships, as has been talked about for several years. Our experience of mapping higher and degree apprenticeship vacancies in Greater London over the past 18 months and discussions with careers advisers in partner colleges has highlighted the challenges in finding vacancies, in the absence of a centralised source of information. (Interestingly, the Chief Executive of UCAS recently stated that the service needs more government funding to deliver an apprenticeship application portal). Would be apprentices, especially those form disadvantaged backgrounds, also need support, not only to track down vacancies, but also in preparing effectively for the selection process, which may include, in addition to the application form and/or CV, online tests, assessment centres, group and 1-1 interviews.
If we are to measure degree apprenticeships in terms of improving social mobility we need accurate, up to date and detailed data. As the HE Commission report highlights, there is a lack of demographic data on those who embark on degree apprenticeships. The latest OfS data, published last Autumn, only covers the period 2016/17, which makes drawing any firm conclusions at this stage on the impact degree apprenticeships have had on addressing skills shortages or in contributing to improving social mobility difficult.