• Young people from low-income backgrounds are under-represented in degree level apprenticeships compared to university.
  • There has been a staggering decline in overall apprenticeship starts in recent years – falling by almost a quarter between 2017 and 2018, and by 18% during the pandemic.*
  • The fall in apprenticeship starts has been much bigger in areas of high deprivation.

Young people from low-income backgrounds are under-represented in higher and degree level apprenticeships, according to new research published today by the Sutton Trust. The research finds that the proportion of degree apprentices from low-income backgrounds is actually lower than for undergraduates (5% vs 6.7%). This suggests that these apprenticeships are not a more accessible pathway than the university route for those from low-income backgrounds.

The research – by academics at the London School of Economics and the University of Surrey – explores trends in apprenticeship take-up from 2015 to 2020, revealing that the number of overall apprenticeship starts declined dramatically during this period. Numbers fell by almost a quarter from 2017 to 2018 – when the apprenticeship levy and other policy changes were introduced, including the move from Frameworks to Standards and new rules on the quality of training. Overall starts also saw another steep fall during the pandemic – an 18% decline in overall starts from 2018/19 to 2020/21, according to data from the DfE. These numbers still have not recovered, with DfE data showing that starts for 2021/22 are still 11% lower than in 2018/19.

The decline in starts since 2015 has been largely driven by a decline in lower level apprenticeships. There are big differences in starts by level, with a dramatic fall in the share of Level 2 (GCSE equivalent) apprenticeships and an increase in the share of higher level (Levels 4-5) and degree apprenticeships (Level 6-7). Researchers say however that young people (under 25s) have not been the beneficiaries of the increase in higher and degree level apprenticeships.

The report examines the demographics of those who take on apprenticeships. It finds that those from lower socioeconomic backgrounds are particularly under-represented in higher and degree level apprenticeships. From 2015 to 2020 there was a small decline of up to 2 percentage points in the representation of those from low-income backgrounds within each level of apprenticeship.

Those from low-income backgrounds are particularly under-represented in Engineering and Manufacturing, especially at higher levels. This gap is especially noticeable within degree apprenticeships. These sectors are associated with high earnings returns, highlighting that those from low-income backgrounds are less able to access the most financially rewarding apprenticeships.

Unlike in most other countries, apprenticeships in England are not predominantly taken up by those transitioning from school to work. Those aged over 25 account for the majority of those undertaking higher and degree apprenticeships.

Apprenticeships used to be more common in the most deprived areas of the country, but today’s research shows that this is no longer the case. The fall in the number of overall starts has been much greater in highly deprived areas. The share of apprenticeships across all levels in the most deprived areas of the country has decreased from 26% to 20%, compared to an increase in the most affluent areas from 14% to 18%.

The research also explores take-up by ethnicity. Those from ethnic minority backgrounds are under-represented across all apprenticeship starts, particularly so for younger apprentices. White British apprentices make up an astonishing 90% of starts for 16-18 year-olds, and 83% of starts for 19-24 year olds. For those aged 25 and over, the make-up is much closer to that of the wider working age population (74% for apprenticeship starts vs 77% for the wider working population).

With apprenticeships the core focus for the government’s skills agenda, today’s research highlights that more needs to be done to ensure apprenticeships are a truly accessible route. The Sutton Trust is calling for:

  • Action from the government to boost the supply of higher and degree level apprenticeships for young people.
  • Measures to rebalance apprenticeships back towards disadvantaged young people who would benefit most from these opportunities.
  • The apprenticeship levy should be reviewed, with social mobility as an explicit criterion.

Sir Peter Lampl, founder and Chairman of the Sutton Trust and Chairman of the Education Endowment Foundation, said:

“Today’s research sharply highlights worrying issues around access to apprenticeships. It is deeply troubling to see this steep decline in numbers in recent years, and still more troubling to observe such inequalities in take-up.

“Higher and degree apprenticeships offer young people a chance to earn while they learn, gain the workplace skills that employers value, and emerge with no debt. They represent a potentially massive boost for opportunity and earning potential.

“Yet in too many cases we see apprenticeships fail to reach the most disadvantaged youngsters – the exact group that would most benefit from them. Apprenticeships have an absolutely vital role to play in the government’s skills agenda, but for them to truly deliver, government and employers must work together to ensure they are truly accessible to all.”

Professor Sandra McNally of University of Surrey and Centre for Economic Performance LSE said:

“The questions for policy makers arising from our report include whether there ought to be more explicit targeting of firm-level incentives towards younger people and how opportunities may be made more widely available for those from disadvantaged backgrounds.”


  • The Sutton Trust was founded by Sir Peter Lampl in 1997 to improve social mobility in Britain.  The Trust has influenced government policy on more than 30 occasions; its programmes have to date given 50,000 young people the opportunity to change their lives; and it has published over 250 pieces of agenda-setting research.
  • *Data on the pandemic decline can be accessed at: https://explore-education-statistics.service.gov.uk/find-statistics/apprenticeships-and-traineeships/2021-22.
  • The analysis was based on administrative data from the Individual Learner Record (for the entire population of apprentices) and linked data for a subset of these individuals (where possible to link the Individual Learner Record to the National Pupil Database).

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