This report looks at the picture of apprenticeships at levels 6 and 7, equivalent to a bachelors or postgraduate degree. Degree apprenticeships in England were launched in Autumn 2015, and offer a potentially powerful combination of on the job training and academic learning. With the prospect of gaining industry-specific skills, a university-accredited degree qualification and leaving without tuition fee debt, they have grown rapidly in popularity. They offer the potential to be powerful vehicles for social mobility, however this report, authored by Carl Cullinane and Katherine Doherty of the Trust, explores whether this is proving to be the case.

Of course, the global pandemic puts the future of apprenticeships at even greater risk. For a detailed examination of the impact of Covid-19 on apprenticeships, read our report Covid-19 Impacts: Apprenticeships.


The proportion of degree apprentices who are older and more affluent has doubled.


The same amount of levy money is spent on senior leaders as all under-25s put together.


Just a fifth of degree apprentices are aged 20 or under.

Key Findings

• Numbers of degree level apprenticeships have grown rapidly from just 19 four years ago, to over 22,000 last year, but they still make up a small proportion of apprenticeships overall, 6% in 2018/19.

•  Looking at degree apprentices at university, over half are 30 or over, with just 20% age 20 or under. The number of those 20 years old or younger starting a degree apprenticeship at an English university in 2018/19 amounted to just over 2,000 apprentices (about one fifth of all such apprentices).

68% of the growth in degree apprenticeships since the introduction of the levy has accrued to over 25s, with just 18% to those 20 or under.

• There is also a significant skew in terms of content. Senior leadership (MBA equivalent) and chartered management programmes together make up almost half (46%) of the entire degree apprentice cohort.

Senior Leader apprenticeships comprise 33% of Apprenticeship Levy funding for degree apprenticeships, the same amount as all degree apprentices under 25 put together.

Just 13% of degree level apprentices come from neighbourhoods in the bottom fifth of deprivation. Over twice as many (27%) come from the most advantaged backgrounds. This pattern is worse at younger age groups. Among under 19s, degree apprentices are more than five times more likely to come from the most advantaged neighbourhoods.

The picture is getting worse over time. Young apprentices from deprived areas made up 9% of degree level apprentices in 2016/17, but 6% in 2018/19. In that same time, the proportion of degree level apprentices older than 25 from the most advantaged backgrounds has more than doubled, from 5% to 11%.

Young people are not receiving enough advice on apprenticeships in school, but awareness among both students and teachers is on the rise. 64% of young people in school express interest in an apprenticeship after finishing school, up from 55% in 2014. Six years ago, just 31% reported that their teacher had discussed an apprenticeship with them, rising to 47% in 2019.

Two thirds (67%) of employers say that making apprentices accessible to those from lower socio-economic groups is important to them, including 79% of levy paying employers.

Employers report a variety of barriers faced by disadvantaged young people: 28% cited a tendency to apply to lower level apprenticeships instead, 27% reported that they don’t have high enough grades, and 26% said applications and interviews fall short in areas other than grades.



1) Degree level apprenticeships (level 6 and 7) should continue to be within the scope of Levy funding, but in order to justify their cost, they need to show that they are genuinely levelling up skills for those who need it most. There needs to be a re-focusing of the degree apprenticeship programme on creating high quality new opportunities for young people, as well as older age groups who would benefit from upskilling.

2) The government review of the senior leadership standard has been welcome. To tackle the wider issue, the government should consider introducing a maximum salary ceiling for levy funded apprentices, meaning that limited public funding is concentrated on providing opportunities for those who would benefit most.

3) In order for apprenticeships to deliver on the levelling up agenda, social mobility and widening opportunity should be an explicit criterion in a review of the apprenticeships levy. The balance of apprenticeships across age groups, levels, those with equivalent qualifications and existing staff versus new starters should be examined. Measures should be taken, for instance, requiring employers to ‘top up’ levy funding for certain categories of apprentice, or otherwise incentivising apprenticeships most conducive to increasing opportunities for groups who need it most.

4) To improve transparency and ensure that apprenticeships are delivering for social mobility, levy employers should be required to publish anonymised statistics on the age, level, socio-economic background and salary level of apprentices, along with the proportion of new and existing staff benefiting from apprenticeships.


1) There should be a focus on improving access for young people from disadvantaged backgrounds to the best apprenticeships. A culture of widening participation should be cultivated, similar to that around access to university.

2) Employers and universities should operate contextual admissions for degree apprenticeships, recognizing the differing challenges faced by young people during their schooling and the untapped potential of many young people from poorer homes.

3) The spending of levy money on access activities should be both permitted and promoted, including bursaries, outreach, recruitment, travel for disadvantaged apprentices or basic skills provision. This could be ringfenced, or employers encouraged to spend a certain proportion of their levy on access.

4) Widening participation statistics for higher and degree apprenticeships should be regularly published by the Department for Education, including free school meals eligibility for young apprentices, and broken down by level.

Information, advice and guidance

1) There should be a national portal where young people can easily find information about, and apply to, apprenticeships, to address the fragmented applications process and increase parity of esteem with academic routes.

2) Schools should be supported to provide good quality careers advice on apprenticeships as an alternative to university. The information gap among schools and teachers should be addressed, with better access to Information and resources. Employers should proactively work with schools to provide opportunities to gain understanding of apprenticeship routes.