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What is an apprenticeship, and should higher education have a role in delivering them?

  • 4 February 2020
  • By Scott Kelly

This blog was kindly contributed by Dr Scott Kelly. Scott lectures in British Politics at NYU and was an adviser to the Minister for Further Education, Skills and Lifelong Learning 2010-12.

Although the apprenticeship levy has been in effect for less than three years, it has, in that short time, had a dramatic impact on the system. While headlines focus on the overall fall in learner numbers, there has also been a significant increase in those studying at higher levels. The numbers studying at levels 4 to 7, the equivalent of the first year of a bachelor degree up to masters level, has grown by 9 percentage points. By contrast, those studying at the GCSE equivalent level 2 has shrunk by 15 per cent. These figures represent a huge change, not just in the level of provision, but also in who is studying and where. On average, apprentices are older, already in work and more likely to doing their off-the-job training at a higher education institution.

These changes have led to an understandable concern that the levy is being mis-spent. In a recent pamphlet, Tom Richmond, a former special adviser in the Department for Education, argues that the administration of the levy has led to a ‘rapid emergence of “fake apprenticeships”’ and to the ‘dilution of the apprenticeship brand’. Richmond points to the growth of apprenticeship provision in higher education as being part of the problem. Indeed, according to Ofsted much of the new provision in higher education is merely graduate schemes rebadged as apprenticeships. 23 universities have found a way of accessing their own levy contributions by enlisting academics as apprentices. Plans are even afoot for the first PhD level apprenticeship standard in nuclear engineering. Should these courses really be described as apprenticeships?

While Tom Richmond and others are surely right that many of the learners benefiting from levy funding should not be called apprentices, they are wrong to argue that higher education and apprenticeships do not mix. One of Richmond’s proposed solutions – that the term ‘apprenticeship’ should only apply to training at level 3 – the equivalent to A level – would be overly arbitrary and restrictive. As Richmond acknowledges, we need a new definition of apprenticeships. But I do not agree that provision above level 3 should not be called an apprenticeship. An apprenticeship is not about the level at which the training takes place. Rather, apprenticeships represent a form of learning and, by extension, are for learners who study best by doing and then reflecting on practice.

Back in 2012, the government-commissioned Richard Review sought to provide a workable definition of an apprenticeship. The review concluded that while an apprenticeship required a trainee to be employed, not all on-the-job training should be called an apprenticeship: ‘Apprenticeships require a new job role, a role that is new to the individual and requires them to learn a substantial amount before they can do that job effectively.’ Such a definition could reasonably apply to training at any level, so long as it is extensive and necessarily for the job.

While the Richard Review’s definition reasonably covers the type of learning that should be called an apprenticeship, it does not address the issue of who apprenticeships are for. While much of the criticism of the apprenticeship levy stems from its use to train well-established employees, the fact that many of these new apprentices have university degrees also elicits considerable unease. An effective apprenticeship system should offer a clear path to highly skilled employment and, as such, provide a viable alternative to the academic route. This is precisely why public policy makers are so in fixated on the apprenticeship systems in Germany and Switzerland. It is because employers and training providers in these systems, as Alison Fuller and Lorna Unwin have written, see an apprenticeship as a route to progression in an organisation throughout a career. Fuller and Unwin have labelled such systems ‘expansive apprenticeships’.

Apprenticeships at higher levels should therefore be seen as an important part of an expansive apprenticeship, but only if this training is available primarily to those employees who have not trodden a long way down the academic path. If employers wish to offer apprenticeships above level 3 and in collaboration with universities they should be able to do so, just so long as they can demonstrate how apprentices at lower levels can move up each rung of the ladder. Apprenticeships should facilitate career progression. Such a stipulation would undoubtedly cause a short-term fall in apprenticeships at higher levels, but it would eliminate much of the deadweight that has developed under the levy and provide a much stronger foundation for growth in the longer term.

Many of the problems that have emerged with apprenticeships since the introduction of the levy stem from the insistence from government that the system should be driven by employer need. The needs of learners are all too often forgotten in the current debate. Many apprentices would welcome the opportunity to progress beyond an entry level qualification and potentially study at a university. Degree level apprenticeships are a great idea, just so long as they are part of a pathway that is distinct from the well-trodden academic one. That is not to say that learners should not be able to switch from one path to the other, but we should be much clearer about the purpose of each path and who should be eligible for levy funding.

We have outlined below a couple more blog by HEPI on apprenticeships.

  1. Access to Apprenticeships – are apprenticeships working for disabled students? by Laura Burley
  2. Are degree apprenticeships fit for purpose? byTom McEwan


  1. Pete says:

    Very good points!

    The criticism that higher apprenticeships are “fake apprenticeships” also ignores that the Apprenticeship Levy was introduced by the UK Government with the intention that higher apprenticeships would grow and over 25s would continue to be able to access apprenticeships.

    If the UK Government wanted a system where the Levy could only be spent on “traditional” apprenticeships – qualifications at Level 2 and 3 only open to those aged 24 and under in manual work (say) – its level would have been set far lower and many sectors (e.g. those who primarily recruit people with A-level or equivalent qualifications such as the NHS and Police) would have been exempt or set lower contributions

  2. albert wright says:

    A timely comment and an important contribution to the debate.

    Degree Apprenticeships seem to me to be helping to increase social mobility and are the HE version of “Grammar Schools”.

    There is already evidence that the degrees achieved are highly regarded by top employers.

    Most of the Universities involved with their delivery are outside the normal top tier establishments that recruit more academic students.

    We need both types of institution and more and better support to expand the content and quality of Apprenticeships at levels 2 to 4.

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