Bursaries to support 1,200 work-based apprenticeship students to take up degree courses each year would be provided by a Conservative government as part of a drive to provide a new vocational route to university.
David Willetts, the Shadow Secretary for Innovation, Universities and Skills, announced the £20 million-a-year scheme at the Tory party's annual conference in Birmingham this week, promising to help some 5,000 students undertake part-time university study alongside employment over the duration of the next Parliament. The awards would be worth an average of £6,000 each.
Speaking to Times Higher Education before his conference speech, Mr Willetts said that only about 250 apprentices currently progress to university.
"In France, apprenticeships are a significant route into higher education," he said. "In theory we have a vocational route here, but in practice it doesn't work outside of some large employers."
In his speech, he said: "If we want vocational skills to gain the respect they deserve, then people need to know they provide a ladder of opportunity and not a glass ceiling. That's why, for the first time, we are going to introduce proper support for apprentices who wish to study at a higher level.
"Let me be clear: while they are studying part time and working part time, they will have all their tuition costs covered.
"This will create a robust, accessible vocational pathway to higher learning for the first time. By the end of a Parliament, over 5,000 people will have benefited. That represents a fivefold increase."
He told Times Higher Education that the idea for the scheme, which could "change life chances", came to him on a visit to British Telecom, where he he found that an apprentice phone engineer could progress to university while working for the company part time.
Many apprenticeships "have been dumbed down as a cheap way of achieving apprenticeship targets," Mr Willetts said.
The Conservatives predict that many of the beneficiaries will be in STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) subjects, providing a boost to the nation's science base and to British industry.
The scheme would be paid for by redirecting funding from the Government's Train to Gain scheme into the Conservatives' Business Skills Development Fund, announced in July 2008 as part of the party's overhaul of apprenticeships and training.
John Denham, the Universities Secretary, said Train to Gain provided workplace training for one million people, and that more than £1 billion will have been spent on it by 2011. "David Willetts needs to explain why the Tories are prepared to cut £1 billion (from the budget) to help people get the skills they need to get on at work," he said.
- A Conservative government would establish a web service designed to help students choose degree courses that are most likely to lead to a graduate-level job. Adam Afriyie, the Shadow Universities Minister, said that £5 million would be invested to establish a site that would "show people the number of students enrolled on a specific course and the number of job vacancies requesting graduates from these courses". He said it would "enable students to gain a better understanding of graduate employment prospects".