InTuition taster: Unlock apprenticeship potential

Two-thirds of teachers in Britain say they are unlikely to advise a highperforming student to undertake an apprenticeship in place of a university degree. But with the best apprentices earning more in their lifetime than many graduates, why are apprenticeship opportunities still being overlooked? Writes James Turner.

High quality apprenticeships can be a powerful tool for social mobility. They lead to improved employment and pay prospects, and enable young people to progress further in their careers and education. Crucially, instead of taking on student loan debt, a factor which is causing increasing concern to young people thinking about higher education, apprentices can earn while they learn and gain valuable skills. For all young people, and especially those from lower-income backgrounds, apprenticeships deserve proper consideration alongside the option of heading to university.

However, despite recent growth, only 13,000 people started a degree apprenticeship in 2018/2019 compared to 330,000 who started a university degree. Universities and employers must work together to increase the number of degree-level apprenticeships available to young people. A portion of the Apprenticeship Levy money – paid by all big employers – should be ring-fenced for spending on bursaries, outreach and travel so that disadvantaged apprentices can take up these opportunities.

Additionally, progression for those beginning on lower level apprenticeships needs to be far easier. Level 2 and 3 apprentices should not hit arbitrary glass ceilings, but instead should have similar chances as their A Level or graduate peers to access the next level of qualifications, including higher and degree apprenticeships. At the Sutton Trust, we want to see

Level 2 apprentices automatically progress to Level 3 upon completion. Fundamentally, the perception of apprenticeships needs to shift. Instead of apprenticeships being seen as secondary to traditional higher education, they should be recognised as important and worthwhile routes into rewarding careers and well-paid jobs. This is particularly relevant when it comes to addressing gender inequalities of apprenticeships; we know that female apprentices tend to be concentrated in lower-earning sectors.

The best apprenticeships are a great route to individual social mobilityand can play an important part in the Government’s efforts to expandopportunity to overlooked areas of the country. To realise that potential, there needs to be a focus on improving access for young people from disadvantaged backgrounds to the best apprenticeships, keeping degree-level apprenticeships within the scope of Levy funding and – crucially – on ensuring young people from all backgrounds get high quality advice and guidance to choose the right option for them. 

Further reading 

  • Better Apprenticeships, The Sutton Trust, 2017
  • Social Mobility Polling, The Sutton Trust, 2019

James Turner is Chief Executive of the Sutton Trust, a foundation which champions social mobility through programmes, research and policy influence.

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