More apprenticeships is a good thing—but it's time to look at the quality

Lots more young people are starting apprenticeships, but too few progress to the higher levels in the system

November 30, 2017
Photo: Anna Gowthorpe/PA Wire/PA Images
Photo: Anna Gowthorpe/PA Wire/PA Images

After many years of neglect, it has been heartening to see the government’s recent focus on apprenticeships. It says that it wants to see three million more by 2020 and in April of this year introduced a levy, so any employer with of wage bill of over £3m has to pay 0.5 per cent towards training for apprenticeships.

Still, too often in the UK vocational qualifications are seen as “second best,” while in countries like Germany and Switzerland, as I have seen first-hand, apprenticeships have as high a status as university degrees. High quality and high status go hand in hand. We still have a long way to go to emulate the best apprenticeship systems on the continent.

While recent policies have been targeted at increasing the numbers of apprenticeships on offer, we need to look at the quality. For apprenticeships to be genuine paths to success for young people, they must be high-quality, focused on increasing the skills of the apprentice, and must also facilitate further progression. Too many apprenticeships in this country are at level two (GCSE level), with no straightforward path towards higher levels. Too many apprenticeships are box-ticking exercises for companies who wish to accredit the existing skills of current staff.

For apprenticeships to provide a real path to social mobility, we need more high-quality apprenticeships targeted at young people. We also need to have automatic and smooth progression from level two to level three, or GCSE to A level standard. While the growth of higher and degree-level apprenticeships in recent years has been welcome, we need a much faster expansion of these places. There are fewer than 8,000 higher and degree level apprenticeships taken up by young people each year, compared to 330,000 taking up degree courses at university. High level apprenticeships can really provide a genuine alternative for young people. Working for Siemens, I found their apprentices were at least as well qualified as science postgraduates like me.

Previous Sutton Trust research has shown that completing the best apprenticeships (at level five) can bring lifetime earnings £50,000 higher than your average degree, allowing for student debt and the chance to earn while you learn. While university graduates rack up close to £50,000 in debt by the end of their studies, one in five graduates are not in a graduate-level job three years after graduation. Apprenticeships should have a far greater role to play in providing alternatives to degrees.

It is also crucial that the issue of access is tackled. As our latest research shows, disadvantaged young people are less likely to enter the best apprenticeships than their better-off peers. We’ve also found concerning gender gaps, with female apprentices concentrated in sectors with low earnings after completion. These inequities need to be addressed, with better guidance for all young people. This should emphasise the benefits of apprenticeships and should be communicated more widely in schools.

The Sutton Trust will be campaigning through 2018 so that in future anyone completing level two should automatically progress to level three, unless they opt out. The focus on apprenticeship starts rather than overall apprentice numbers, and quality, in the government target does a disservice to young people at present.