Last week I visited the offices of Goldman Sachs and Global, the Media and Entertainment group to meet some of their apprentices. The apprentices were all undertaking a Digital and Technology Degree Apprenticeship with Queen Mary University of London, the first Russell Group institution to offer degree apprenticeships in London. In Germany and Switzerland, most young people take high-level apprenticeships like these. Many of them will reach the very top of their field.
While the number of degree apprenticeships in England have increased every year since their introduction in 2015, there are still nowhere near enough. So far this year, just over 11,000 people started a degree apprenticeship. Only 5,000 of these were under 25. This is nothing when compared to the 300,000 teenagers who will take up a place at university this year.
The apprentices I met told me how much they valued being able to earn while they learn, gain workplace skills, and come out with a degree from a leading university. They were quick to point out just how hard they were expected to work and told me about the challenges of balancing work with study. However, there was unanimous agreement that their apprenticeships were worth the work.
What was worrying is that none of the apprentices had heard about degree apprenticeships through their career advisors or teachers. This echoes the findings from our polling where just 1 in 5 teachers said they would recommend a high-performing student to choose an apprenticeship over university. Providing young people with information and guidance on the ever-changing apprenticeships route is complicated but it’s crucial for ensuring young people know all their options.
Many of the apprentices spoke of the support they received from their parents. Goldman Sachs had hosted a parent’s insight evening which one apprentice said had persuaded her mum to the value of a degree apprenticeship. According to our polling, a quarter of parents would now recommend their children take a high level apprenticeship over a degree.
The apprentices went on to tell me that even once you know about degree apprenticeships, they are hard to find and competitive to access. Opportunities are advertised on a variety of different websites and applications are lengthy, often involving psychometric testing, video interviews and assessment days. Consider how much more complicated this is than applying to university, which requires just one online application through UCAS. If we are to open-up degree apprenticeships to more young people, we need to make sure they have access to a comprehensive and easily accessible information and applications portal, like UCAS for university.
For the employers, it was clear that the complexities of accessing the levy and the restrictions on what they could use it for were the main reasons why they couldn’t grow their degree apprenticeship programme. The levy needs to be easier for companies to manage, with clearer and less complex processes to offer more of these hugely beneficial opportunities to young people.
The OfS found that only 12% of degree apprentices come from the poorest fifth of areas, compared to 27% from the wealthiest. We want to make sure the levy has a widening access function to ensure access to advanced and higher apprenticeships for those from less advantaged backgrounds and support the schools that are desperately in need of the advice and guidance.
I came away from the day with Goldman Sachs and Global even more convinced that degree apprenticeships are worth the fight to get them right. The enthusiasm and pride with which these young people spoke about their apprenticeships shows that there is much to be celebrated. But it’s also clear that there are many things that need addressing, if apprenticeships are to fulfil their potential as a vehicle for social mobility.
We need to get career advice in schools right so that young people know all their options. We also need far more degree apprenticeships to be available for young people to ensure we are offering them a genuine, high-quality alternative to university. Most importantly, we need to make sure that young people from disadvantaged backgrounds have a fair chance at accessing the best – and most rewarding – apprenticeship opportunities.