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Are degree apprenticeships fit for purpose?

  • 22 February 2019
  • By Tom McEwan

This guest blog has been kindly written for HEPI by Tom McEwan, Senior Researcher at Policy Conect and author of a new report on degree apprenticeships.

In my speech at the launch of Degree Apprenticeships: Up to Standard?, I pivoted on a phrase which I heard throughout our inquiry: ‘degree apprenticeships are a great idea, but … ’. The remark drew a telling chuckle from the audience.

Upon the launch of the model in 2015, which sees apprentices work while studying for a tuition-fee free degree, the Government framed it as an opportunity for narrowing skills gaps, increasing productivity and boosting social mobility

Our report – which focuses on degree apprenticeships policy in England – concludes that despite the Government’s laudable ambitions there is:

  • significant market failure;
  • complex bureaucracy;
  • under-delivery to small and medium sized enterprises (SMEs); and
  • under-provision – “cold spots”, which already experience severe educational and economic disadvantage, are geographically restricted in accessing the new model. 

Employers and providers articulated the economic and social potential of degree apprenticeships in positive terms, and many view it as a good policy addition to the range of skills pathways. However, the prevailing view is that there are significant challenges in making the system work, and a number of improvements needed – “degree apprenticeships are a great idea, but … ”. This blog discusses two core commitments of the policy: addressing skills shortages and boosting social mobility.

Addressing skills shortages

In recent years the UK Government has placed renewed emphasis on aligning Industrial Strategy with skills policy. Degree apprenticeships have been a key component of this plan. 

While the actual impact of the provision on skills issues is unclear because there are so few completions to date, what is clear is that the control of supply is simply not aligned with the dispersion of skills needs across England. One concern across all levels of apprenticeships is that many proven providers have been prevented from delivering to SMEs through a botched procurement process. 

This is a particular problem for degree apprenticeships. We found 63% of degree apprenticeship standards have just one or no HEIs that have been approved in the procurement process for SME delivery – 43% have zero. It cannot be sound policy to invest millions in the new model, seeking to address high-level skills gaps but then to prevent SMEs – who make up over 99% of businesses – from having equal access compared to bigger companies. 

A scattergun approach has resulted in Leeds Beckett University being the only institution approved for delivery in the entire Leeds City Region, while Exeter, Brighton and Surrey face a dearth of local providers. A number of higher education institutions in such areas have excellent relationships with local businesses and despite having had prospective degree apprentices lined up, have often had to turn them away as a result of a system which is not receptive to local demand. 

It is true that higher education institutions offering distance learning models can help alleviate problems arising from a dearth of local providers and this should be encouraged. But this is only responding to the symptom and not the fundamental issue. The Government have striven to create an employer-led system and a ‘market’, but employers are unable to choose their preferred provider in a system which is broadly stymied by market failure.

The Department for Education and the Education and Skills Funding Agency (ESFA) should consult urgently on, and implement, the inclusion of all approved higher education institutions to deliver to non-levy payers so that SMEs have equal access to degree apprenticeships. For the Government’s ambitions to be realised, SMEs must be able to participate.  Of 10,840 Level 6+ starts in 2017/18, 8,690 were made by levy payers – despite over 99% of UK businesses being SMEs. Without urgent reform, we risk a long term skew in the market which favours bigger employers, with SMEs denied a route to attracting the highest calibre of talent. 

Such challenges will only be exacerbated by a system which is costly, bureaucratic and burdensome to navigate for employers – small as well as large – and providers. UWE commented on its ‘inordinate complexity’, while IBM discussed the ‘significant’logistics, time and investment that is required. If we want to build confidence in the market, should we not be prioritising a user friendly system?

Social Mobility

The available data already indicates that it is those from the most privileged backgrounds who access degree apprenticeships; 54% of participants are from areas of high educational advantage. Skills Minister, the Rt Hon Anne Milton, has also acknowledged concerns regarding a “middle class grab”.

Our report identified consistencies between employer and educational cold spots and a dearth of degree apprenticeship vacancies. At its worst, those from Norfolk – which already experiences severe educational and economic disadvantage – could have to travel a distance, on average, which is twelve times as far as someone from Hammersmith and Fulham to access the nearest opportunities. This entrenches advantage and compounds disadvantage. 

This speaks to two issues:

  1. ensuring that employers are utilising degree apprenticeships across the country, and;
  2. supporting prospective apprentices in accessing opportunities in areas outside of their region.

While the former is important, we must also confront the fact that there will be a number of specialised careers – such as aerospace engineering – where opportunities are unlikely to be widely dispersed. 

Young people should not be precluded based on their postcode. It is important, for those from disadvantaged backgrounds and living in cold spots, that additional up-front financial support is made available. One argument levied against this proposal is that degree apprentices receive a salary, but this does not necessarily cover expensive relocation costs which can hinder disadvantaged young people.

Highlighting this emerging “middle class grab” is important for two reasons:

  1. it means the Government needs to take action to meet its ambitions of boosting social mobility; and
  2. it provides a map for where to direct support. This is why I would also reject comments that we should celebrate a ‘middle class grab’.

Such comments centre on ‘esteem’ and do not address the problem at hand. If high-reward apprenticeships are dominated by those from advantaged backgrounds, it is fatalistic to suggest that the way to increase participation of those from poor backgrounds, is to encourage – and be grateful for – the dominant participation of those from advantaged backgrounds. Absolutely we should encourage their participation, but there also needs to be a coherent strategy for securing the participation and completions of those from the most disadvantaged backgrounds.  

Moving forward, degree apprenticeships have enormous potential and many dedicated employers and providers have committed to making them succeed under less than ideal circumstances. The Government must address the broader policy issues highlighted in this discussion, as well as the more specific implementation difficulties which are covered throughout our report, which continue to create a headache for all involved. 

It is time to seize the opportunity which degree apprenticeships present, therefore the Government must respond to the calls of the sector which will allow this model to flourish beyond its current confines. 


  1. Alison Watson says:

    Does this research cover the whole of the UK, or specific home nations only?

  2. Professor Mary Bishop says:

    Really good summary of this research and the Report Tom. The level of engagement and debate at the launch shows how key this is – and your ‘great idea but…’ really hits the mark. As a Commissioner on the HE Commission it was powerful to hear the evidence given and how strongly the voices identified similar issues. As a member of the government standard setting group for Accounting and Finance, we struggled to gain input from SMEs and SMPs and also draw enough input to make it geographically representative. There need to be more flexible ways used to gain broader consultation and input, and the focus also needs to be on social equality to ensure social mobility.

  3. Professor Mary Bishop says:

    Really good summary of the research and Report Tom. The level of engagement and debate at the launch demonstrated how important this area is. As a Commissioner on the HE Commission, the evidence given was powerful and the key themes identified made the recommendations clear. As a member of the government steering group developing the Accounting and Finance Apprenticeship Standard, we struggled to gain input from SMP/SME and to gain a sufficiently broad geographic focus to make it full representative from a regional perspective. The government needs to find ways of consulting across the regions and also look to be more flexible in the way it consults to ensure SMP/SME input rather than big business with a London base/focus. To ensure the degree apprenticeships enable social mobility, we need to ensure social equality is fully addressed.

  4. Patrick Tucker says:

    Just a quick question – you haven’t mentioned subcontracting, so HEI’s can access non-Levy funding through a subcontracted route with a Prime.

    Is there a particular reason this was t mentioned?



  5. albert wright says:

    This is early days for Degree Apprenticeships.

    It is right to point out the geographic under provision areas as well as the relative under focus on areas of disadvantage. However, such criticism could be made of the whole HE sector.

    We need to remember that DegApps are a hybrid. The advantage to the student is they get a wage and not a loan.

    There may be a need to add loans to cover relocation costs for students to make the scheme work better.

    I am more concerned over the narrow subject range covered by Degree Apprenticeships which are currently mainly a “Lite MBA”, making it a very good model for large, levy paying employers wanting to up skill existing employees.

    It is unlikely that Apprenticeship Degrees will ever be available in my home town of Hartlepool.

  6. albert wright says:

    With regard to SME’s, Degree Apprenticeships have the potential to dramatically increase the productivity of firms with over 50 but under 250 employees.

    This will require new / additional learning material which has a focus on the issues that concern such businesses.

    This will be different from that designed for middle and progressive talent in the top 8,000 organisations with over 250 employees.

    It will also need around 20 further providers to adequately cover regional requirements.

    There are many, talented, local business leaders ready and waiting to develop their strategic and leadership skills that could make a substantial impact in their regions on economic growth.

    This, in turn, should help improve social mobility and the wealth of the populations located in the “colder” disadvantaged areas of the country.

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