‘Degree apprenticeships could be the answer to social inequality in education’

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Date: 8th Mar 2019

Ian HarperBy Ian Harper, Interim Director of Apprenticeships

I read an opinion piece at the end of last year about ‘degrees for the rich, apprenticeships for the poor’.

The author pointed out that the education secretary’s advocacy of apprenticeships as an alternative career path comes with predictable consequences.

Damian Hinds suggested that students and their parents could save money by considering ‘commuter degrees’ or perhaps apprenticeships as a route to qualification without incurring a sizeable student debt.

He also confirmed that the government would combine undergraduate with apprenticeship destinations when it comes to school leaver statistics.

In reaction to this the columnist suggested that children from parents with social and financial capital will continue to steer their children to university and it will be children with less support at home who would enable the government to claim credit for increased numbers of young people progressing to higher education, thereby masking the inherent inequality in the system.

But it doesn’t have to be a binary choice.

There is of course a third way, a route that combines the degree-level attributes employers often require with the vocational skills that are essential for all employers.

Degree apprenticeships offer a unique contribution to the skills landscape in that they allow students to develop their academic skills and knowledge in a way that is contextualised to their work.

Employers see the productivity benefit from a colleague’s learning as it happens, not having to wait until they have completed their qualification and have returned to work or have been recruited.

How much more valuable is a graduate that has grown up within the organisation than another recruited to the role once graduated?

Funding and finance are constant topics of discussion where university education is concerned, and degree apprenticeships score well here, too.

Larger employers can use levy funds to pay for their undergraduate apprentices’ training.

Smaller businesses attract a generous 90% matched funding from the government to pay for theirs.

For the undergraduate, the lack of a tuition fee is an obvious benefit but of course they are also employed whilst studying, receiving a salary alongside their education.

In truth, some degree programmes are already, and have always been, degree apprenticeships in all but name.

Medicine, nursing and veterinary science for example all combine academic learning with substantial on-the-job development and experience.

As students and their parents consider their options, and as employers look for new ways to ensure they employ people with the right cultural and skills fit, degree apprenticeship programmes will see increased demand and new standards will be developed in response to that demand.

In turn, degree apprenticeships will become more mainstream and possibly a route less susceptible to the social inequality sometimes present in the alternatives.

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