How do we bring parity for The Million?

Lindsay Conroy, Apprenticeship Programme Lead, UCAS

I recently had the privilege of interviewing a degree apprentice at a large multinational organisation and hearing the story of her journey to her apprenticeship, she was a truly impressive individual with incredible resilience and tenacity. My conversation with her really reinforced that the work to break down the barriers for young people exploring apprenticeships is so worthwhile, because the challenges are real and they can be huge.  

This young woman, in the final year of her A-Levels, told her teachers that she wanted to do an apprenticeship. She was told to apply for university. In a world, just a few years ago, this advice would have been because her teacher was pushing her to be ambitious, aspirational and to strive to achieve more. In today’s world the teacher was pretty clued up, she realised that degree apprenticeships are hugely competitive, that there are insufficient opportunities to meet demand and that the journey to success is genuinely tough.   

But the young person in question was determined, and willing to work hard to get what she wanted. And she did; forty applications and an eight-stage interview process later she is now a thriving degree apprentice building a great reputation for herself.   

In the last two years, UCAS has seen a vast increase in the number of people who tell us they are interested in apprenticeships when they register for our services to support their journey into higher education. Around half of the people that sign up to UCAS each year say they want to know more about apprenticeships, and they tell us that they trust UCAS to provide this information to them.

The narrowing funnel  

So why is it that so many people are interested in an apprenticeship, but that funnel narrows so rapidly, and few follow through to starting an apprenticeship? In the 2021/22 academic year only 5,000 of the 106,000 higher and degree apprenticeship starts were of school leaver age. The progression ladder in apprenticeships is certainly different to that of traditional academia, so perhaps we should look at Advanced Apprenticeships offering the gateway into the pathway for school leavers, but of the 141,000 level 3 starts, only 26,500 were of school leaver age. That’s about 30,000 entrants to an apprenticeship, compared to half a million that tell us they are interested in exploring the pathway.   

I believe the reasoning for this lies in the challenges young people face in the journey. Thinking about the young lady I described earlier, how many school leavers could cope with the setbacks of that journey? Would know how to cope with an eight-stage interview process? Would have the resilience to submit forty different applications?  

A traditional university experience is a tried and well-trodden pathway, it’s a fantastic pathway, UK universities are world class, and until a few years ago, it was the only real pathway for specific career choices. I wonder how many of our teachers, parents, and career advisers know that if a young person aspires to become a solicitor, a nurse, a doctor, a social worker, a research scientist, even a rocket scientist that the traditional route is not the only one open to them now? If those that provide the guidance, the advice and the influence to our young people don’t know – then it’s understandable that our young people might not get this information. If an apprenticeship is not given equal footing in all career’s guidance in school, then how can we expect our young people to really understand that it may be a route for them to achieve their aspirations?  

Challenging expectations 

Should they overcome the hurdle that is lack of awareness, then our young person needs to do some research to determine if an apprenticeship could be of interest to them. If we think back to that tried and well-trodden pathway of a traditional university experience, students go into it having a clear idea of what to expect; 73% of students tell us the find it easy to access information about undergraduate study. They know how they will fund the experience, where they will live, what student life will be like and where they can turn to for help, information, and guidance. The same can’t be said for an apprenticeship, many don’t even realise that’s a real job, never mind how their education will work alongside or what the social experience will be like. There are many unknowns, and those unknowns are wrapped up in stigma and misconceptions; ‘apprentices are the people who make the tea’, ‘it’s just like a work placement for a year’ or ‘they are for people who aren’t very academic’. That’s probably my favourite ‘they are for people who aren’t very academic’ – imagine learning everything you need to learn to be a solicitor, whilst working as a solicitor full time and completing your degree alongside. That sounds academic, doesn’t it?  

Accessing accurate information 

The way in which today’s generation turn those unknowns into knowns: Google. However, the internet is a minefield, there are so many different sources of information about apprenticeships, some of it great, some of it accurate, some of it in date, but much that isn’t and much that comes from sources unknown to our young people, and if the source is unknown, they don’t know if they can trust the accuracy of the information. Only 26% of students tell us it is easy to access information about apprenticeships. As we progress on the Journey to a Million applications to Higher Education, we will naturally see an increase in the number of students exploring apprenticeships as their pathway, this only exacerbates the number of unknowns being answered from sources that cannot be trusted and therefore creates more scenarios where young people may make decisions based on incorrect information.  

A challenging landscape once you arrive 

For the sake of further exploring this journey though, let’s assume our young person has found a source of information that they do trust and as a result thinks that an apprenticeship could be something for someone like them. The next hurdle they must overcome is finding an apprenticeship.   

Disparate. That is the landscape that we have to navigate when it comes to searching for an apprenticeship. There is no single source of opportunities or requirement for an employer to advertise in any specific places. A young person can find apprenticeships in many different places, through job boards, training providers, directly from employers – the options are vast and it’s not easy to find what you are looking for, especially if you are looking for a degree apprenticeship that may only be advertised at specific times of the year.   

If they are lucky enough to find an opportunity, at the right time for them, then they must apply for it and every application is unique, every set of employer requirements is unique. That could be, in the case of our young lady at the start of this article, forty application forms, or forty CVs tailored to forty different employers, or forty covering letters explaining why she is interested in their organisation – that would require real dedication and that is when the real work starts because then the young person has to be successful at interview. Which is likely to be a process they haven’t been through before, certainly not with the scrutiny that they would experience at this point. Imagine doing that without a teacher in school mentoring you, without a parent who has experienced similar processes to give you advice along the way, without your peers experiencing the same things… surely this is a big part of why that funnel narrows so quickly?  

Providing parity 

Now I’ve painted a picture full of challenges and hurdles, that makes the prospect of an apprenticeship really quite daunting, I’d like you now to imagine instead a world where young people leaving mandatory education have the full suite of their options at their fingertips. Where they can explore their future through the lens of the traditional undergraduate degree and through the lens of an apprenticeship, but they can do it in a way that enables really close comparison of the two options. Imagine a world where a service they trust to support them through the discovery and application to university also becomes the service they trust to support them regardless of the pathway they choose to take. Imagine a service that knows someone is looking at studying engineering and shows them different institutions alongside different employers, alongside technical education choices and enables them to hear from their peers who have followed these various routes. Then imagine that service being one that can serve up the opportunities, allow you to reuse the data that is already held about you to populate an application process, supports you to understand what different types of interviews are, enables you to learn how to shine in the process and then picks you up if you’re not successful and shows you another way.  

As the UK moves through the Journey to a Million, as we see more applications to higher education and a more competitive landscape emerge, that world is one that we have a true responsibility to provide for our young people.   

For me, that is parity, and they are the headlines of the developments coming to UCAS in the very near future. All who visit will find both pathways side by side by autumn this year and by 2024, students will be able to apply for apprenticeships through UCAS similarly to how they currently apply for undergraduate degrees. While these advancements are being produced in conjunction with the Department of Education in England, we are also working closely with agencies across the Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland to bring an equal experience for students there too. These changes will bring us much closer to the parity future generations deserve. 

Lindsay Conroy

Apprenticeship Programme Lead, UCAS

Lindsay has been an advocate of apprenticeships across her 20 years in the sector. Over her career, which she started as an apprentice, Lindsay has held a broad range of roles within independent learning providers, focusing on quality, curriculum, and employer solutions.  

Throughout her time in the sector Lindsay has worked closely on the apprenticeship reforms and has led on the development of Higher Apprenticeships and the creation of apprenticeship standards and end point assessments. Prior to joining UCAS, Lindsay ran an Ofsted outstanding training provider.  

As part of the UCAS leadership team, Lindsay is spearheading the work to create parity between traditional undergraduate routes and apprenticeships and technical education.  

Outside of work she is proud to be a governor of a special education secondary school and volunteers to provide specialist apprenticeship focused careers advice for sixth form students at two of her local secondary schools.