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At the start of National Apprenticeship Week, author and lecturer Martin Allen assesses the evolution of higher level apprenticeships, and concludes that they are still a long way from representing an alternative to traditional degrees.
Among many promises made in the run up to last year’s election was David Cameron’s pledge to create three million more apprenticeships.
“That’s three million more engineers, accountants, project managers,” he said. In other words, the Prime Minister is arguing that apprenticeships will be used to upskill large numbers of young people, to improve the UK’s economic competitiveness.
The creation of the Higher Level apprenticeship in 2012 was considered fundamental to this, with the then Business Secretary, Vince Cable, arguing at its launch that:
‘Investing in skills is central to our drive to boost business and productivity and make the UK more competitive… by radically expanding the number of degree level apprenticeships for young people, we will put practical learning on a level footing with academic study. This is an essential step that will help rebalance our economy and build a society in which opportunity and reward are fairly and productively distributed.’
Higher Level qualifications were established as Level 4, 5 and 6 qualifications, equivalent to foundation degree study and above. Though it is possible to provide these through a workplace National Vocational Qualification, employers were also encouraged to work with higher education institutions.
There are some schemes like those at the BBC where apprentices complete a course of university study, but the influence of private providers like BBP is also growing. As part of the new Trailblazer initiative –where apprenticeship training schemes are being rewritten to ensure higher levels of quality and to be more in line with specific employer requirements, degree level apprenticeships are now also being established with specifications soon available for everything from quantity surveying and accountancy to solicitor training. These will be designed to work with higher education institutions, not in competition with them.
The main problem is not about the design however. Though the number of Higher Level apprenticeship starts have continued to increase significantly, they still represent only a tiny fraction of the total number however – SFA data showing under 30,000 registered higher apprenticeships at the end of 2014/15 out of a total 800,000. With 19,300 starts during 2014/15, there were just over 1,000 by those under 19 years old and 15,000 by those 25 or over. The only sectors where Higher Level apprenticeships have any visible presence is in health and business management. They are virtually non-existent in engineering and manufacturing.
With two thirds of apprentice starts continuing to be at intermediate Level, this means, at least for the moment, that, although schools have been criticised for not promoting them, apprenticeships are not an alternative route to university for young people and that their significance in higher (and further) education will remain limited. There is nothing to suggest at the moment this will change.
Those employers that have wanted to, have continued to sponsor university students, so it is not clear why they would want to establish Higher Level apprenticeships instead. Secondly, the huge increase in the number of graduates means that employers have much less of a need to protect their future labour supply. Rather than employers finding it difficult to attract highly qualified graduates the issue for the current generation is to avoid being pushed down out of graduate employment.
Martin Allen is a visiting lecturer at the University of Greenwich, and is author of Another Great Training Robbery or a Real Alternative for Young People? (2016), downloadable from www.radicaledbks.com
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