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Degree Apprenticeships – Passing or Failing the Social Mobility Test?

Adrian Anderson, Chief Executive, University Vocational Awards Council (UVAC)
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Ever since their launch in 2015 Degree Apprenticeships have been criticised for not delivering on the social mobility agenda.

The charge has also been levelled that they have been subject to a middle-class grab.

But has such criticism been fair?

Let’s not Just Consider Social Mobility in Isolation

Nobody is going to underplay the importance of the social mobility agenda, but it must be set alongside and considered in the context of the other policy objectives of Degree Apprenticeship. Take the Police Constable Degree Apprenticeship (PCDA). Here Police Forces are using the programme to professionalise and support the diversification of officer recruitment. Measured from the diversity perspective the PCDA is having a massive impact on supporting Forces recruit more women and officers from BAME backgrounds.

Sussex Police, for example, reported that the PCDA resulted in a 114% increase in applications from females and 118% increase from those identifying as BAME. Increasing the diversity of recruitment is fundamentally important but is not the same as supporting social mobility. The Digital Technology Solutions Professional Degree Apprenticeship has attracted more women into digital careers. Again, attracting more women into STEM occupations is important, but not the same as social mobility.

More broadly the success of Degree Apprenticeship needs to be assessed in terms of how it contributes to raising productivity and the delivery of high-quality public-sector services. Take the Senior Leader Degree Apprenticeship. UVAC/Centre for Degree Apprenticeships research demonstrated that NHS Trusts are making significant use of the Senior Leader Degree Apprenticeship and according to Trusts this is having a positive impact on patient care.

So, a result? Yes, but those taking the Senior Leader Apprenticeship are already well qualified, in good jobs and better paid. So the impact of Senior Leader Apprenticeships on social mobility may be limited.

Look at the Green Jobs agenda: is the Apprenticeship Levy best spent on supporting a graduate retrain through a Degree Apprenticeship as an ecologist or used to fund three young people from disadvantaged background take hairdressing Apprenticeships?

A Failure to Understand how Degree Apprenticeship can Support Social Mobility

In its 2020 Vision for Apprenticeships, Government was clear, Apprenticeship is an all age programme. It is therefore very disappointing that many commentators simply focus on judging the success of Degree Apprenticeship in recruiting young people defined as those under 25 while ignoring the benefits for social mobility for older individuals using the programme.

For example, an individual who has undertaken a healthcare Apprenticeship can progress to the nursing associate Higher Apprenticeship, which in turn can lead to the registered nurse Degree Apprenticeship. IfATE is fostering such progression through its occupational maps.

For Apprenticeship programmes, progression is likely to happen later in life. This is a positive and we should celebrate a healthcare assistant becoming a nursing associate and then a registered nurse in their 30s or 40s.

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Setting an arbitrary focus on an age by which progression should occur shows a lack of understanding of how Apprenticeship and lifelong learning works and is arguably discriminatory.

But what do the Statistics Show?

Most of the statistics quoted reflect the position of Higher and Degree Apprenticeship at a very early stage of their introduction.

In 2018/19 level 7 Apprenticeship provision was dominated by accountancy and finance (58% of provision) and the Senior Leader Degree Apprenticeship (29% of provision). In 2018/19 the top level 6 Apprenticeships by market share were Chartered Manager (26%), Digital Technology Solutions Professional (14%) and Chartered Surveyor (11%).

Today the Higher and Degree Apprenticeship offer is substantially broader than in 2018/19. Judging a programme that now encompasses Apprenticeships for police constables, social workers and over 90 occupations by its performance for the limited number of occupations in 2018/19 is inappropriate. More recent institutional studies paint a very different picture.

In February 2021, Middlesex University reported that Higher and Degree Apprenticeships are having a “very significant” impact on social mobility as 63% of their apprentices come from non-professional backgrounds and 66% have parents with either no formal or degree level qualifications.

At Sheffield Hallam University 66% of Police Constable, 56% of Engineering and 52% of Digital Degree Apprentices come from the most deprived areas.

So Higher and Degree Apprenticeship can make a significant contribution to social mobility.

At a national level there is, however, a need to undertake a review and implement a strategy to ensure Higher and Degree Apprenticeship makes an optimum contribution to supporting social mobility. We need to define what a ‘good’ and effective approach looks like and what measures and case studies can be identified and used to disseminate good practice.  

What delivery approaches, measures and monitoring are needed and would OfS, as HE regulator, expect to see to support such learners to realise their potential?

Without doubt, HE providers will need to undertake considerable work to determine how they can widen access and participation and support social mobility and the levelling-up agenda through technical education, Apprenticeship and adult skills provision and outline such action in their Access and Participation Plans. 

At a strategic level I would suggest:

  • Social mobility objectives and measures are determined in the context of the broader policy objectives of Apprenticeship, raising productivity, enhancing workforce diversity, delivery of public sector services and the Green Jobs agenda.
  • Apprenticeship and Higher and Degree Apprenticeship are an all-age programme and their contribution to social mobility should be seen and measured in this context.
  • The contribution of Higher and Degree Apprenticeship to social mobility should be measured by the extent they open-up access to professional and higher-level occupations and higher education in comparison to other programmes

Adrian Anderson, Chief Executive, University Vocational Awards Council (UVAC)

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