It’s time we started treating apprenticeships the same as degrees

If the qualifications were given the respect they deserve, they could offer many more young people an excellent route into the world of work, argues Cate Smith

The budget set out late last year included payments for employers that hire new apprenticeships, and the announcement of a £7m fund to help employers in England set up and expand portable apprenticeships. In the budget, the government acknowledged the high-quality, long-term training that apprenticeships provide and also declared that employers can benefit from access to a diverse apprenticeship talent pipeline.

The government is clearly pushing for more apprenticeships to be created. In the 2019 Conservative Party manifesto it stated “in the next Parliament, we expect to train up hundreds of thousands more highly skilled apprentices”. It also talked about looking carefully at the balance of funding between universities, further education, apprenticeships and adult learning. Additionally, only a few months ago, a new government service was launched to help large businesses more easily pledge funds to smaller businesses, to help create and recruit for more apprenticeship opportunities.

However, between May 2010 and January 2021, only 4.75 million apprenticeships have been started. To provide some context, in 2018/19, there were an estimated 2.38 million students studying at UK higher education institutions. Clearly, apprenticeships have some way to go before they are considered as desirable as a degree and simply investing more money in them won’t drive uptake.

For almost a quarter of a century now, the UK has become obsessed with university as the gateway to a better life. Those who went to university want their children to go, and those who didn’t also want their children to go. As more and more people attend university, it is hard to argue with the rumbling that getting a degree isn’t quite the passport to a middle-class career that it used to be.

In fact, many graduates are starting to question the value of their degrees, especially in light of the truncated offering caused by the pandemic. Many are finding it hard to secure meaningful employment and are saddled with a hefty debt, and so it’s understandable that students are questioning if their degree represents value for money.

Our cultural infatuation with higher education can be traced back to New Labour and its ‘Education, Education, Education’ slogan. In 2001, then prime minister Tony Blair stated that “there is no greater ambition for Britain than to see a steadily rising proportion gain the huge benefits of a university education”. 

Well, things have changed in the last 20 years. Currently leading the charge on the value of an apprenticeship compared to a degree is none other than the former PM’s son, Euan Blair, who has set up a company that offers apprenticeship alternatives to university. He has called for an apprenticeship revolution and said that universities are failing to prepare students for the world of work. The venture is part of a drive to stop apprenticeships always being for other people’s children, as it is often said.

I support the aim to encourage young people to consider an apprenticeship. However, they are still suffering from an image problem. To try to tackle this, we are working with our corporate partners to create pre-apprenticeship programmes. They help the underprivileged students we work with get the insight they need to decide if becoming an apprentice is the right path for them. Over time as people come to better understand the value of a top-quality apprenticeship and competition for them gets fiercer, we also want to help make sure those from disadvantaged backgrounds don’t miss out. Our pre-apprenticeship programmes get them ‘match fit’ for applying. 

The programmes have been designed with a host of leading companies to provide participating students with the opportunity to gain insight into different departments and roles within them. Taking part in a programme means students will learn more about the apprenticeships on offer at that company, develop the key employability skills needed to thrive there and learn directly from their professionals. 

This model offers benefits to both companies and young people. It encourages more students to consider an apprenticeship by giving them a realistic idea of what it is like. It also means that those who choose to apply already better understand what a company is looking for. As we work solely with young people from disadvantaged backgrounds, encouraging them to consider careers they might not have otherwise will help diversify the workforce in those sectors and they will bring fresh thinking and insights. 

I truly believe apprenticeships are a great route for many young people and hope they will start to be given the respect they deserve.

Cate Smith is head of programmes at The Talent Foundry