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Degree apprenticeships and the lifelong learning entitlement; The HE general election issues, Day 6

  • 10 June 2024
  • By Rose Stephenson
  • HEPI is running a seven-day blog series on important election-related issues, which is aimed primarily at non-specialist readers. This sixth piece, written by HEPI’s Director of Policy and Advocacy, Rose Stephenson, outlines information about degree apprenticeships and the lifelong loan entitlement.
  • The five previous pieces on student voters, funding, research spending, internationalisation and students’ cost of living can be found on our News page here.
  • If you are not yet registered to vote at the forthcoming general election, you can still register here (until 11.59pm on Tuesday, 18 June 2024):
  • There is (just) time to register for the HEPI Annual Conference on ‘Higher education on the cusp of the general election’, sponsored by Kortext and TechnologyOne, which is taking place in central London on Thursday, 13 June 2024. There are a (very) small number of seats left.

In recent years, there has been a push to encourage higher education routes other than the traditional model of studying for an honours degree full-time and away from home. Alternative forms of study bring higher education into the reach of more people and can work for employers short of higher-level skills.

In particular, higher apprenticeships, including at Levels 4 and 5 and degree apprenticeships at Levels 6 and 7, enable students to work in a profession while studying for a degree-level qualification in the same area. These are often touted as an alternative to traditional degrees.

Apprenticeships are funded by the apprenticeship levy. Businesses with a pay bill of over £3 million pay 0.5% of this into the levy ‘pot’. Businesses can then use the levy fund to cover the cost of training apprenticeships.

One of the earliest announcements of the 2024 General Election campaign was a Conservative Party pledge to increase the number of ‘high-skilled apprenticeships’ by 100,000 a year during the next Parliament, to be paid for by savings from reducing the number of traditional degree programmes.

However, the number of apprenticeship places has been falling, not rising. Across all levels, there were over 170,000 fewer apprenticeship starts in 2022/23 than in 2015/16. This loss has been seen most keenly in Intermediate Apprenticeships (also known as Level 2 apprenticeships, comparable to GCSE-level study). There has been a smaller decline in Advanced Apprenticeships (at Level 3, comparable to A-Level study), while places at Levels 4 to 7 (shown as Higher Apprenticeships in the chart below) have been rising.

Source: Department for Education, Apprenticeships and traineeships data

Moreover, as the number of higher-level apprenticeships has risen, the age profile of apprentices has changed. As the chart shows, over time proportionately more apprenticeships have been started by those aged 25 and over. In 2022/23, 53% of those on Level 6 apprenticeships and 62% of those on Level 7 apprenticeships in England were aged 25 or over. In 2020, it was reported that senior leadership (equivalent to an MBA) and chartered management programmes made up almost half (46%) of degree apprenticeship courses.

Source: Department for Education, Apprenticeships and traineeships data

On the one hand, this suggests the drive for higher-level apprenticeships has worked well for lifelong learning. People already established in their careers are accessing higher apprenticeships, as their employers use the Apprenticeship Levy to raise the skills of their workforce. On the other hand, the supply of degree apprenticeships aimed at school leavers, especially those from disadvantaged backgrounds, is lower than much political rhetoric might imply.

There are widespread concerns over the completion rates for apprenticeships as close to half of those who start a course do not complete it. This explains why the Office for Students sets a minimum completion threshold of 55% for undergraduate (Level 6) apprentices, which is significantly lower than the 75% target for full-time first-degree (non-apprenticeship) students.

Apprenticeships are a popular policy concept. However, reform is needed to ensure that apprenticeships serve those they are intended to. Suggestions for reform include:

  • Lord Willetts and Lord Knight (a Conservative peer and a Labour peer, respectively, both of whom were previously Ministers with responsibility for parts of the education system) recommended the ‘government looks to funding degree apprenticeships through the standard higher education fees and loans model’ while concurrently cutting the red tape limiting the supply of places. This would allow for significant expansion of higher-level apprenticeships without a large upfront cost.
  • The Learning and Work Institute recommends a ‘Flex and match’ skills levy. This would broaden the current apprenticeship levy to give employers greater flexibility to spend their levy on training in priority areas, but only if they also invest in apprenticeships for young people.
  • Universities UK have recommended a review of the costs and burden of regulation, stating ‘the scale, complexity and high cost of how degree apprenticeships are regulated creates a potential barrier to entry’.

Alongside improvements to the apprenticeship offer, the incoming Government will take on responsibility for the Lifelong Learning Entitlement (LLE). This is designed to provide learners with funding for four years of higher education study at Levels 4 to 6. Ministers have claimed the policy is akin to ‘the revolutionary ideas that shaped the founding of our NHS’. When the underlying legislation was going through Parliament, the Rt Hon. Robert Halfon MP, Minister of State for Skills, Apprenticeships and Higher Education, told the House of Commons that the LLE would provide people with ‘a flexi-travelcard to jump on and off their learning as opposed to being confined to a single advance ticket. This is not just a train journey; it is a life journey.’

The goal is that learners will be able to use this loan for ‘stackable’ modules of 30 credits rather than having to sign up for a full qualification in advance. However, full implementation of the LLE has been delayed from 2025 to 2027 and many unanswered questions remain. For example, the mechanism for transferring credit obtained at different institutions is unclear.

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