‘Rip-off’ degrees rhetoric ignores awkward facts about apprenticeships

The UK needs a skills strategy that values the full variety of training and education pathways and reflects regional needs, says Neal Juster

June 1, 2024
An apprentice
Source: iStock

The benefits of going to university are enormous.

Over their working lives, the average UK graduate is at least £100,000 better off compared with non-graduates even after student loan repayments, higher taxes and time out of the workforce are taken into account. And, as a recent study showed, that figure has held up despite huge advances in participation since 1997.

Two-thirds of working-age graduates are in highly skilled jobs, compared with less than a quarter of non-graduates, and by the age of 31, graduates typically earn 37 per cent more than non-graduates.

An innovation-led, levelled-up UK economy will need more graduates, not fewer. In Lincolnshire, the share of the population educated to Level 4 (equivalent to the first year of a bachelor’s degree) is almost half that of London. However, our region will need to be at the forefront of national efforts on food security, defence and green energy transition, requiring a highly skilled workforce.

If we are to achieve this, apprenticeships should not be pitched against university study in the eyes of aspirational young people or in the fight for public funding. However, with the quality and value of university degrees thrust back into the media spotlight on the general election campaign trail this week, this facile debate forces reflection on some inconvenient truths about the current state of apprenticeships.

Both the Institute for Fiscal Studies and the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development have highlighted that the number of apprenticeship starts has fallen by about a third since the apprenticeship levy was introduced in 2017, with the sharpest declines among under-19s.

The problem appears to be one of supply, not demand. Research by Ucas and the Sutton Trust shows that while 40 per cent of school leavers interested in going to university also express an interest in apprenticeships, there were just 5,000 starts on higher apprenticeships (equivalent to the first year of a degree) among under-19s in 2021/22. Most apprentices are 25 or over and already in work, and the proportion from underprivileged backgrounds is lower than in universities.

Young people are understandably drawn by the opportunity to “earn as you learn”, but the completion rate for apprenticeships is just 54 per cent – far below the average for undergraduate degrees (about 90 per cent). One in three apprentices would not recommend an apprenticeship to friends or family, while about three quarters of final-year undergraduates are satisfied with their course overall.

Issues of quantity and quality in apprenticeship provision are not a  result of lack of funding either. At least £2 billion of unspent apprenticeship levy funding has been returned to the Treasury since 2017, according to recent analysis based on Freedom of Information requests. In 2022/23, the levy raised £580 million more than was actually allocated to fund apprenticeships.

By contrast, per-undergraduate funding is at its lowest real-terms level since the late 1990s, and support for living costs has seen the biggest real-terms cut since the 1960s. This is the outcome of seven years of tuition fee freezes, the scrapping of maintenance grants, successive below-inflation increases in maintenance loans, and the freezing since 2008 of parental income thresholds for student loan qualification. This has a disproportionate impact on students from low-income backgrounds, whose life chances stand to benefit most from degree study.

At the University of Lincoln, 97 per cent of undergraduates come from state schools and one in five are from low-participation neighbourhoods. Nine out of 10 of our recent graduates are in work or further study 15 months after graduation and almost four in five are working in highly skilled roles that fit with their future plans.

The reasons some students drop out are complex: mental health and well-being is an increasingly common factor, but we provide comprehensive support services to help our students with the many challenges young people face today.

Closing down degrees based on salary outcomes overlooks the deep-rooted regional disparities in employment markets, average salaries and living costs, unfairly penalising universities outside the South-East, which serve some of the country’s most deprived regions.

High-quality apprenticeships should be part of the skills mix, and universities are already playing their part, delivering well-structured degree apprenticeships by collaborating effectively with industry and providing expert student support.

This academic year, Lincoln is the training provider for more than 1,000 apprentices studying across more than 30 different advanced, higher, degree and master’s apprenticeship programmes spanning healthcare, business, construction and food manufacturing. Employers range from local SMEs to multinationals, as well as local authorities, charities and NHS trusts.

Universities are adept at building provision around local and regional need. At Lincoln, just over a decade ago we created the UK’s first dedicated new school of engineering for more than 20 years in collaboration with Siemens. More recently, in partnership with the University of Nottingham, we opened a new medical school to address chronic NHS skills shortages in the region.

Our teaching and research have been co-designed with employers, right down to the layout of our facilities and elements of the curriculum. Through our provision of degree apprenticeships, student placements, graduate recruitment, internships and knowledge transfer partnerships, we work daily to match organisations with the talent flowing through our university.

The UK needs a skills strategy that values the full variety of training and education pathways, from short courses, through apprenticeships and undergraduate study to postgraduate research. These need to be properly funded, with adequate oversight across all routes to ensure good outcomes for students and good value for employers and taxpayers. Universities like ours are ready and waiting to be involved in that conversation.

Neal Juster is vice-chancellor of the University of Lincoln.

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