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Standards, starts and achievements: Quality and growth in the HE apprenticeship market

  • 14 July 2023
  • By Olivia McLaughlin
  • This HEPI blog was kindly authored by Olivia McLaughlin, Consultant Director at Think. Think is a consultancy working with the further and higher education sectors on strategy, employer engagement, technical education, and apprenticeships.
  • Think is launching a series of thought pieces over the next few weeks covering the Apprenticeship landscape from various perspectives. Follow our social media channels for future releases: Twitter, LinkedIn and Facebook.
  • Detailed data published by the Department for Education (DfE) provides insights into the apprenticeship market for universities, including their all-important achievement rates. Olivia sifted through the numbers.

The apprenticeship market for universities – including degree apprenticeships – has been the focus of much attention in recent years, as ministers and institutions seek a more diversified post-18 offer. Barely a week goes by without Secretary of State Gillian Keegan or Robert Halfon, Minister for Skills, Further and Higher Education, extolling the virtues of degree apprenticeships to anyone who will listen. But how is this market developing and which providers appear to be performing best?

Just the job?

Let’s start with the basics. An apprenticeship is a job with training. It blends learning on the job with further learning and development activity away from normal work duties, such that the learner is occupationally competent by the end of their programme.

Major reform to the apprenticeship product and a radical change to funding have combined to transform the apprenticeship market in England. The introduction in 2017 of the Apprenticeship Levy, paid by large employers at a rate of 0.5% of payroll cost and made available to invest in apprenticeships on a ‘use it or lose it’ basis, has helped to grow annual investment from £1.6bn in 2016/17 to £2.5bn in 2021/22. Two-thirds of apprenticeship investment is now by the 22,000 or so levy-paying employers. At the same time, over 650 employer-defined occupational standards have developed, setting out the requirements apprentices must meet to complete successfully and reach full competence. Over a quarter – 162 – of standards are at level 6 or 7, including 109 that contain a mandatory degree qualification. Professions where apprenticeship is now an established entry route include chartered accountancy, nursing, teaching, chartered surveying, social work and solicitors. There is even an Academic Professional (level 7) apprenticeship, completed by a few hundred people each year working at universities. The recent NHS Long Term Workforce Plan plans to recruit around 9000 apprentice nurses (20% of all nursing recruits) by 2028/29. Almost a quarter of NHS clinical staff will be recruited via apprenticeships by 2032.

Unlike the vast majority of further and higher education provision, apprenticeships respond primarily to employer rather than learner demand. It is employers who decide which apprenticeship standards to use (often in accordance with their organisation’s people development priorities), which providers to invest apprenticeship funding with and whether they want apprentices as new recruits (typically young people) or existing staff seeking to upgrade their skills to take on new roles and responsibilities (52% of level 6 and 7 apprentices are aged over 25). And while the provider works closely with the apprentice and employer throughout to plan, deliver and track learning towards successful completion, the employer role remains critical to helping apprentices to apply new skills and learn on the job. Ministers, providers and many employers are keen to ensure that apprenticeships widen access to higher level skills and good quality jobs for learners of all ages, though there is currently little in the way of funding incentives for HEI providers to do so.

So how is this market for HEIs evolving? Though overall apprenticeship volumes remain dwarfed by mainstream UG and PGT enrolments, quarterly DfE data tells a familiar, positive story in 2022/23:

  • Higher apprenticeship starts between levels 4 and 7 are continuing to grow, with a 7.1% increase to 64,890 starts between August 2022 and January 2023.
  • Enrolments at levels 6 and 7, which drew down £500m of apprenticeship funding in 2021/22, now represent 1 in 6 of all apprenticeship starts, having expanded rapidly in recent years.  
  • Growth is being driven by degree apprenticeships, where starts are 12% higher than last year (17,500 so far in 2022/23).
  • Degree apprenticeship growth is led by public service occupations such as police constable, nursing and social work.
  • 101 universities have delivered apprenticeship starts so far in 2022/23 compared to 93 a year ago, led by Anglia Ruskin University (966 starts), Staffordshire University (799) and Manchester Metropolitan University (757). Sixty-six universities recorded more than 100 starts in the first half of AY 2022/23.

Quality control

Apprenticeship achievement rates are one of the critical quality measures for apprenticeship providers of all types, measuring the proportion of apprentices who successfully complete their programme. Across all levels, almost half of all apprentices fail to do this. This high attrition rate is due to multiple factors, some of which sit beyond the control of providers. But with ministers setting a minimum achievement rate of 67% by 2024/25 and Ofsted Chief Inspector Amanda Spielman highlighted the ‘need for improvement’ on achievement rates, the pressure is on apprenticeship providers to improve.

Recent achievement rate data published by DfE for 2021/22 provides a first insight into this key metric for universities that deliver higher and degree apprenticeships. Equivalent data for 2019/20 and 2020/21 was provided for each standard but not by institution due to the impact of Covid on the market. The 2021/22 data shows the average achievement rates of level 6 (57.3%) and level 7 (58.3%) apprenticeships above the national average (51.4%). The critical factor at all levels is retention – the vast majority of retained apprentices pass their end point assessment, achieving their apprenticeship.

On average, universities appear to perform relatively well but with substantial room for improvement. Of the 85 universities appearing in this data set, a third had retention rates below 60% and a further third were between 60 and 70%. There are several universities performing extremely well, led by the University of Exeter (see table below). In contrast, fifteen universities had an achievement rate below 50%. There was little variation in performance between HEIs with large apprentice cohorts and those with much smaller volumes.

Published DfE achievement rate data: Top ten universities with more than 100 leavers (apprentices) in 2021/22

The top ten performers listed above all exceed the 2024/25 ministerial target of 67%, meaning the challenge for these universities will be in maintaining or strengthening their position. But 33 of the 55 universities with over 100 leavers fell below the 2024/25 target.  Nineteen of this number dipped below 60% and can expect enquiries from DfE about what they are doing to improve, as per the Apprenticeship Accountability Framework.

The reasons for high attrition rates on apprenticeships are myriad and don’t always sit within the control of the provider. An apprenticeship is a job with training so, for example, when someone leaves that job either through choice or because of decisions their employer has taken, their apprenticeship can often fall by the wayside. For others, personal reasons and life events intervene.

However, many causes of non-completion can be influenced by providers. A report by the St Martin’s Group and the Learning and Work Institute found that early leavers cite reasons such as high workload, a lack of employer support, and poor organisation. This is mirrored in DfE’s own research, which found that ‘lack of support from provider/tutor’, ‘problems with employer’ and ‘badly organised’ were the three most common reasons for learner dropout. These are all issues that providers can influence.

For its part, the DfE is taking steps to improve apprenticeship retention and achievement, as outlined in a letter from the Minister to providers. But ultimately it is for apprenticeship providers – including many universities – to improve performance in this area. This requires work with employers to ensure:

  • Programme design changes are used to address drop-out hot spots
  • Consistent and high-quality coaching and support for learners to help them manage workload
  • High-quality pre-enrolment advice and guidance for prospective learners and employers to ensure that expectations are clearly understood and adhered to
  • Early intervention is made when apprentices are not being given required time to study off the job
  • There is high-quality employer line manager engagement, including participation in formal reviews
  • Strategic and effective succession planning with employers to reduce apprenticeships moving from one employer to another (which can directly impact their apprenticeship study)

Achievement rate performance also impacts universities’ apprenticeship revenues. A fifth of provider funding per apprentice is contingent on the learner completing their programme and undertaking their end-point assessment. Improvements in retention and achievement rates can therefore help at a time when margins for apprenticeship delivery at universities are coming under pressure.

The apprenticeship market for universities is still in its infancy, with degree apprenticeship providers operating in a complex, heavily regulated environment accurately characterised as practically and culturally heavy to manage. In this context, the relative outperformance of university providers on achievement rates represents good news. Both major political parties appear to agree that apprenticeships, including higher and degree level, are critical in resolving the skills gaps and shortages that hold back national productivity. This first glimpse at achievement rates by institution suggests that many universities are off to a good start. Much hard work lies ahead with apprentices, their employers and within universities to further improve retention, achievement, and impact.

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