This blog was contributed by John Cope, Director of Strategy, Policy & Public Affairs, UCAS.
There isn’t an education minister in living memory who didn’t at some point say they wanted to bring ‘parity of esteem’ between higher education and apprenticeships. Most believed it when they said it. Not many genuinely moved us towards it.
Today, at start of National Apprenticeships Week, it feels – and I say this knowing the hostage to fortune I’m creating – like we’ve reached a genuine tipping point where apprenticeships are reaching parity.
What leads me to this bold claim is that of the 750,000 people over the last 6 months who have set up their UCAS account ready for next year, 342,000 said they’re interested in an apprenticeship.
This is nothing short of staggering. Up 123% on the previous year. The good news doesn’t stop there, searches for apprenticeships on UCAS.com reached 2 million this year, up 45% on the previous year. Top employers like Jaguar Land Rover, Vodafone, Rolls Royce, Sky, and Keir Group are all selling themselves to would-be apprentices through our new employer profiles. While the vast majority of the UK economy is small and medium size employers, seeing big household names on UCAS makes apprenticeship snobbery harder and harder to maintain.
Continuing my hostage to fortune, I think we can now reasonably say that the conditions needed to deliver a system that offers the full range of choices are falling into place, with the Skills Bill going through Parliament and roll out of T Levels seeking to cement that. Not forgetting the Lifelong Loan Entitlement coming down the tracks too.
What are these conditions? First, the apprenticeship levy, while far from perfect, has delivered stable and increased funding for apprenticeships – around £3 billion a year. The Institute for Apprenticeships & Technical Education has engaged employers more than ever in securing rigorous, employer-led standards so apprenticeships lead to great jobs. Most importantly though, a dramatic cultural change is underway that’s seeing young people, adults, and parents abandon the stubborn view that apprenticeships are ‘for other people’s children’ and lesser.
There is no room for complacency though. We recently polled students at school and college and found one-third of students did not receive any careers information about apprenticeships, despite the ‘Baker Clause’ creating a legal requirement to do so in England. Careers advice remains an undervalued part of our education system.
Returning to the issue around parity, however, a tipping point in demand isn’t enough. True parity includes status. We’re not there yet – the word ‘prestigious’ remains the preserve of undergraduate courses, with 76% associating that word with a degree, while only 4% did so for apprenticeships.
Alongside parity of demand and status, we need parity of opportunity. Not only will the roll out of T levels encourage progression to an apprenticeship, we know the 18-year-old population is about to dramatically increase until the end of the decade with the biggest increases in the next few years. Our current forecast is for one million applications through UCAS in 2026 compared to just over 700,000 in 2021 – an enormous leap.
With the median size of a university around the 15,000 mark, that jump of 300,000 between now and 2026 means we’ll need new universities in the next couple of years, or for current institutions to dramatically upscale. Apprenticeships, especially in smaller firms which the UK economy is predominantly made up of, will also need to scale expand to meet demand – there are around 5,000 apprenticeship opportunities on UCAS.com this month.
The gap becomes even more stark when looking at English 18 year olds. Over 18% of those applying for an undergraduate degree in 2021 said they were simultaneously applying for a degree apprenticeship. That’s around 50,000 students. Compare that to just 3,600 apprentices (aged 19 or younger) who started a higher or degree level apprenticeships in 2020 – 21. It’s an incredible gulf.
To get ahead of this growing demand and growing population, UCAS is investing in our apprenticeship and undergraduate services. The government and wider education sector will also need to think hard about how it expands, with a review of the Apprenticeship Levy inevitable and needed; incentives for employers (especially smaller firms) needed to drum up supply; and work needed to make sure the lifelong loan entitlement dovetails with the rest of the system. Of course, requiring apprenticeships to be listed with UCAS would ensure applicants get to see the full range of choices available.
I’m sure this will also be front of mind as the ‘national missions’ in the Levelling Up White Paper are digested and we edge ever closer to the long awaited and tricky implementation of the Augar review of post-18 education funding (a review started in February 2018 that is now on its second prime minister, and fourth education secretary).
What we can be confident of is that demand for higher education and apprenticeships will only increase in the coming years. How we meet that demand, and pay for it, remains an open question.
UCAS will be publishing a series of articles on its LinkedIn page throughout National Apprenticeship Week.