More than half of school-leavers who have started degree-level apprenticeships in England are from the most privileged social backgrounds, data reveal.
Research published on 7 March by the Office for Students showed that 28 per cent of degree-level apprenticeship starters aged under 21 in 2016-17 were from neighbourhoods classed as quintile 5 under the Participation of Local Areas (POLAR) classification. These are the areas that are most likely to send students into higher education. A further 26 per cent were from quintile 4, the second-most privileged areas.
In contrast, only 13 per cent were from quintile 1, the most disadvantaged neighbourhoods, and 17 per cent were from quintile 2.
The data are for apprenticeships at levels 6 and 7 under the Regulated Qualifications Framework, which lead to bachelor’s or master’s degrees, or equivalent qualifications. They will raise questions over whether the development of apprenticeships in England has helped to widen entry to higher education, or has provided an opportunity for middle-class school-leavers to cement the advantages that they already enjoy in terms of access to conventional degree courses.
The OfS data show that students from the bottom two POLAR quintiles represent a greater share of the intake of degree apprenticeships than full-time higher education courses (30 per cent versus 26 per cent).
However, the proportion of places taken up by poorer school-leavers becomes progressively lower as the level of the apprenticeship increases, while the percentage filled by richer students increases. For example, under-21s from the bottom two quintiles account for 43 per cent of apprentices on level 3 courses – equivalent to A levels – while students from the richest quintiles account for 36 per cent.
The OfS report says that that 10,870 students are reported to have started degree-level apprenticeships in 2017-18, more than in all the previous years combined. However, these level 6 and 7 apprentices still account for slightly under 3 per cent of all apprentices who began that year, and 1.5 per cent of the 730,000 students who started equivalent degree qualifications.
In 2014-15, fewer than five universities and colleges offered degree-level apprenticeships, but 47 universities and 56 colleges took part in projects funded by the Degree Apprenticeship Development Fund in 2016-17 and 2017-18.
The OfS report says that “the early signs are that the benefits of degree apprenticeships are being enjoyed…by young school leavers from disadvantaged backgrounds”. But it adds that “there is an imperative to bring the proportions of disadvantaged learners closer to those found in apprenticeships at a lower level”.