Those who have watched the hit TV series “Stranger Things” will know that it takes place in two parallel dimensions, the ordinary, familiar American town of Hawkins and its murky, sinister counterpart, “the Upside Down”.
It’s not far off the scenario we now have in England’s post-18 education system. On one side, we have the familiar, highly visible world of A Levels, three year university degrees and the annual ritual of gowns and mortar boards at graduation ceremonies. On the other side we have the alternate universe of higher and degree apprenticeships, to most school and college leavers a baffling, impenetrable, rather scary world into which many only stumble by accident.
There is of course an element of exaggeration in my analogy, but if you look at the experience of those students looking for a place on a traditional degree course and those trying to find a degree apprenticeship, the contrast is disturbingly stark.
Those applying to university have been taught throughout their school and college lives by teachers who have almost all successfully completed university degree courses, and can provide a whole range of informal advice and guidance. There’s a single application process, and a huge amount of information and support available on the UCAS website, not just about degree courses, but about different types of university, financial issues, accommodation options and the social and cultural life of the towns and cities where they may end up living. This is now supplemented by the increasing number of other online platforms offering information and guidance.
Those aspiring to an apprenticeship are surrounded by teachers who have little or no experience of this pathway. There is no single source of information, and as many different application processes as there are employers, many requiring a face to face interview, which many 18-year-olds have never had to do before. It’s extraordinarily difficult to find information about basic issues such as accommodation, travel costs, or additional support needs. Awareness of, and interest in apprenticeships has greatly increased, with — searches on the UCAS website increased by 54% during the last admissions cycle. UCAS itself is undertaking steps to address the gap, particularly with teachers and advisers. Their links with over 4,000 teachers and career advisers across the UK mean that UCAS can deliver up-to-date guidance on all pathways, including apprenticeships and other forms of technical education. However, more still needs to be done. Recent research indicates that just over a quarter (26%) of applicants found it easy to get information, and a third reported receiving no information at all.i
Apprenticeships are still the “Stranger Things” of the higher education landscape, hidden from view, unfamiliar, involving an application process that many applicants find complicated and stressful.
The big difference, of course, is that while those who fall into the Upside Down in Hawkins find it a place of darkness and evil, those who get onto a higher or degree apprenticeship find it a fulfilling and rewarding experience. All the degree apprentices I’ve talked to are full of appreciation for the opportunity they have had, and have nothing but praise for their learning experience.
This shouldn’t come as a surprise, as the apprenticeship route offers three big advantages for ambitious students. First is financial; earning money rather than running up student debt. Second is employability; apprentices develop the generic workplace skills — communication, teamwork, self-organisation — that employers are crying out for. Third is relevance; apprentices learn bang up-to-date technical skills and knowledge, something of particular value in industry sectors where the pace of technological change is high.
So what needs to be done to bring the process of applying for degree apprenticeships out of the shadows and into the light?
The good news is that UCAS has already embarked on an ambitious strategy to provide the same level of support and guidance for those pursuing apprenticeship pathways as is available for traditional degree courses. For a start, there’s recently been a huge push to provide school teachers and advisers with information, advice and training about all aspects of apprenticeships. In addition, there are now apprenticeship employer profiles on the UCAS website, and a growing amount of user-friendly information about apprenticeships. By this autumn, UCAS will integrate the apprenticeship application system so that all who visit the website will find both pathways side by side. By 2024, students will be able to apply for apprenticeships through UCAS alongside an undergraduate degree option. Personally, I’d love to see us moving towards a single application process for degree apprenticeships, just as we have for university applications, but we’ll need to persuade employers of the benefits.
But beyond the practical improvements UCAS can make, there is a continuing need to make progress on a wider front. UCAS research has found that while 87% of applicants believe a degree will lead to a good job, only 57% believe the same is true for apprenticeships. Many students and parents don’t realise that an apprenticeship pathway leads to exactly the same university degree as a traditional three year degree pathway. Even worse, while 76% of applicants associate the word “prestigious” with university, only 4% associate apprenticeships with prestige.ii
The status of apprenticeships needs to be transformed. At the moment, any prestige apprenticeships have is associated with the strength of the employer brand, so there’s currently huge competition to get a degree apprenticeship with companies such as Lloyds Bank, BP, or Grant Thornton, but too little interest in excellent opportunities with lesser-known employers. In contrast, “going to uni” and getting a degree from any university is seen as having intrinsic status and value.
The great majority of higher and degree apprenticeships are offered by companies who don’t have a high public profile, and many key sectors — such as digital and creative industries — are dominated by SMES and micro businesses. Its therefore vital that the image of apprenticeships — still associated in many people’s minds with “oily rag”, lower level technical occupations — is generally improved. This will take time, but just as being a vegan has moved from being labelled as an eccentric weirdo to being fashionable and progressive, so being an apprentice needs to be seen in future as something clever and cool.
Beyond the issues of profile and prestige, the biggest risk to the future growth of degree apprenticeships is that supply doesn’t keep up with rising demand. The apprenticeship levy system, while opening up an invaluable funding stream, has a number of downsides, and there has been a flurry of reports suggesting a variety of reforms. The key driver behind any changes must surely be to increase the supply of high-quality apprenticeships, especially from smaller employers in key growth industries. A number of proposals need further exploration — fully funding 16–18-year-old apprentices to create parity with their peers, reintroducing cash incentives for SMEs to take on new starts, increasing the flexibilities around sharing levy funding between companies, and greatly improving the availability of advice and guidance for both employers and applicants.
On the Journey to a Million, it’s important to expand not just the number of higher education opportunities, but the range and variety of options available. A false distinction is too often made between “technical” and “academic” education, while in reality university students study Medicine, Architecture and Engineering — all vocational subjects — alongside those taking academic courses like philosophy, literature or history, with neither being seen as having higher status than the other. The point is that there are enormous practical obstacles to simply expanding the volume of traditional degree courses, and a growing awareness that many technical and vocational subjects can be taught just as well, if not better, through the work-based learning approach integral to apprenticeships. An increase in the supply of higher apprenticeships will enable the whole system to work better for all students, by increasing choice and tailoring types of course to individual needs and preferences.
Meanwhile, UCAS will play a pivotal role in making the apprenticeship applicant journey much clearer and more straightforward. The Upside Down needs to become the Side by Side, and apprenticeships need to move from being Stranger Things to Familiar Friends in the expanding, multi-dimensional future of higher education.
Head of Development at the Lifelong Education Commission and Apprenticeship Champion for UCAS
Andy began his career as an English teacher before moving into further education by joining Manchester College. He has over 20 years' experience of senior management, including 12 years as Principal of colleges in Hertfordshire, London and Bristol. He is currently Head of Development for the Lifelong Education Institute and works part time as an Apprenticeship Champion for UCAS. He is Chair of Governors of Barking and Dagenham College, a Board member of Manchester Metropolitan University and a Trustee of educational charity Ambitious about Autism.