Higher apprenticeships lead to ‘greater earnings than most degrees’

But Sutton Trust analysis says that while learning on the job can be a good alternative to university, too few qualifications are at this degree-equivalent level

October 9, 2015
Land survey apprentice

Young people who enrol on the highest-level apprenticeships can expect to earn more over the course of their careers than graduates of all but the most prestigious universities, a study suggests.

An analysis commissioned by the Sutton Trust calculates that someone with a level 5 higher apprenticeship, which is considered to be equivalent to a foundation degree, can expect to attract an average annual salary of £34,220 over their working life.

In contrast, an Oxbridge graduate is likely to be paid an average of £45,850, with alumni of Russell Group universities on £40,960 and people with degrees from other higher education institutions earning £35,520.

When total lifetime earnings are considered, however, level 5 apprentices’ income is estimated at £1.44 million, overtaking graduates of non-Russell Group universities, who are expected to bring in £1.39 million. Graduates of Oxbridge and Russell Group universities are still ahead, on £1.79 million and £1.6 million respectively.

Although apprentices’ career total advantage of £52,000 over most graduates is partly the result of their earlier entry to the workplace, the Sutton Trust says the analysis – which was based on employment data and projections of economic growth – demonstrated that enrolling in a good apprenticeship was a viable alternative to going to university.

This is particularly the case given the cost of tuition fees, the abolition of maintenance grants and changes to student loan repayment terms, the report says.

In terms of earnings, young people who complete a level 4 higher apprenticeship, equivalent to a higher national certificate, can also expect a significant uplift in their earnings potential. The report says that they can expect to earn £1.38 million over the course of their careers, or an average of £32,790 a year.

Applicants for higher apprenticeships are required to have A levels or equivalent qualifications, and typically receive funding from an employer and the government. 

However, the report highlights that just 3 per cent of apprenticeships being created at the moment were at levels 4 or 5 – equivalent to about 30,000 over two years. The vast majority were at intermediate and advanced levels, equivalent to GCSEs and A levels, and people with these qualifications cannot expect to earn so much over the course of their careers.

A poll of 1,017 16- to 18-year-olds that was commissioned for the report found that, of the respondents who were intending to go to university, 80 per cent believed that getting a degree was better for their long-term career prospects than an apprenticeship.

More than 80 per cent of all respondents said that they had received information about higher education from their school, but fewer than 60 per cent had been told about apprenticeships. This was compounded by the advice of friends, families and social media, the report says.

Sir Peter Lampl, chairman of the Sutton Trust, said that more higher level apprenticeships should be created.

“We need more good apprenticeships to offer genuine alternatives to A levels and degrees,” Sir Peter said. “We also need to tackle the ingrained negative culture of apprenticeships that exists amongst teachers, parents and young people alike.”

Commenting on the report, Sir Keith Burnett, vice-chancellor of the University of Sheffield – which has its own degree-level apprenticeships programme in advanced manufacturing – said it was important that vocational education was not seen as a “poor relation of academia, but a key part of providing skills for industry, driving innovation and supporting economic growth”.

“The UK has suffered for too long from a one-size-fits-all approach to higher education, and from an unhealthy separation of ‘academic’ and ‘technical’ education. This approach is damaging to young people and does not meet the needs of the country,“ he said.


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