Degree apprenticeships are far from ‘fake’

Higher-level schemes provide work-based routes into economically critical fields and aid social mobility, argues Dr Stan Lester

The need for reforms to apprenticeship funding is clear. But it is unfortunate that recent criticisms of some aspects of the system are being extended indiscriminately to higher-level and degree apprenticeships. A recent EDSK report, for instance, brands degree apprenticeships as ‘fake’ and ‘rebadged degrees’, and calls for the ‘apprenticeship’ title to be restricted to level 3 programmes. There have also been calls from some parts of the further education sector to restrict levy funding to levels 2 and 3.

But any understanding of apprenticeships needs to go back well before the term was reinvoked in the 1990s as part of policies to counter youth unemployment. Engineering apprenticeships in particular were already leading to higher-level qualifications such as HNCs and HNDs (and occasionally offering progression to degrees). And before the rapid growth of full-time higher education in the last third of the 20th century, the majority of professional occupations were entered via an apprenticeship-type or parallel on/off-job training route.

Degree apprenticeships were formally introduced in 2015 as a government flagship programme designed to support the industrial strategy in areas such as digital technology, engineering and management. They aimed to address higher-level skills shortages more generally, and aid social mobility by diversifying professional entry routes. They built on a number of previous reports and initiatives, including the 2006 Leitch review of skills, the subsequent introduction of level 4 and 5 apprenticeships, and the aspiration in the 2012 Richard review that apprenticeships would become “an effective pathway for highly skilled work, including professional and senior job roles”. A review of apprenticeships by the House of Commons Education Committee in 2018 gave strong endorsement to degree apprenticeships and called on the government to make them a strategic priority.  

These 21st century apprenticeships are among other things providing work-based routes into economically critical fields such as digital industries and engineering, offering a much-needed lifeline nurse recruitment following the demise of the graduate bursary and underpinning police reforms that will see all non-graduate recruits trained to degree level. 

Returning to full-time education, with or without a student loan, is not an option for many workers.  Early evidence indicates that while degree apprenticeships are substantially more expensive than level 3 apprenticeships, when compared with professional entry based on full-time degrees, they offer a more efficient, accessible and cost-effective route for labour market entrants and many existing workers.

Far from being ‘fake apprenticeships’ or ‘rebadged degrees’, degree apprenticeships are work-based programmes that comprise a mix of on and off-job learning, which in the best examples is closely integrated. While some universities initially treated degree apprenticeships as conventional day or block-release programmes, there is now a wealth of experience and innovative practice that has grown out of employer-university partnerships. 

Degree apprenticeships are also attracting considerable attention and interest internationally, including from BIBB, the German agency responsible for the much-admired ‘dual’ system. It would be a great loss if they were undermined by on the one hand treating them in the same way as full-time degrees, or on the other by expecting them to conform to approaches developed primarily for level 2 and 3 provision.  

To return to apprenticeship funding, degree apprenticeships (and other higher-level apprenticeships) are not cheap. But they are effective, and training at this level, however funded, is vital to the economy. There is perhaps a stronger case for removing funding for 16 to 18-year-old apprentices from the levy and returning it to the general education budget. 

It would be particularly perverse if the NHS was prevented from spending levy funds on training nurses (where a degree is now mandatory) or the police on entry programmes for constables. Or if digital employers needed to create jobs and training far below the level needed in the industry to make use of their levy contributions.  

Dr Stan Lester is a consultant and researcher in professional education and standards