From education to employment

Degree Apprenticeships vs Full-time Degrees: A False Dichotomy in the Election Debate.

Thomas Burton Excluisve

The debate between degree apprenticeships and full-time degrees has reached a boiling point this past week. Fuelled by the Conservative Party’s pledge to create 100,000 more apprenticeships by 2029, has framed the issue as a battle where only one side can prevail. However, this portrayal by Prime Minister Rishi Sunak obscures a broader truth: both educational pathways offer unique strengths and mutual benefits. Rather than choosing sides, future government policy should adopt a fiscally sound approach that values and integrates both options for the benefit of all learners.

The Conservative Pledge: A Divisive Strategy

The Conservative Party has committed to increasing apprenticeship starts to around 440,000 by the end of the next parliament, funded by reallocating resources from university courses deemed poor value for students and taxpayers. This policy aims to tackle the problem of “rip-off degrees” while enhancing employment opportunities and financial security for young people. However, framing the debate in this manner seems to be a strategic move to split opinion among the electorate, capitalising on public concerns regarding higher education costs and outcomes. But what actual resources are being reallocated here? Is it diverting prospective student loan funding to the already vast amounts of “unspent Levy,” as Labour would have voters believe?

Historical Context and Current Challenges

Since the introduction of the apprenticeship levy in 2017, the apprenticeship landscape has faced significant challenges. The number of apprenticeships, especially among young people, has sharply declined. Apprenticeships for those under 19 dropped from 122,750 in 2016/17 to 77,720 in 2022/23. Overall starts also fell from nearly 500,000 to 337,000 in the same period. Completion rates have been another concern, with nearly half of apprentices failing to finish their programmes. Meanwhile, universities across England are grappling with a capped home student fee and restrictions on dependant visas, exacerbating financial and inflation-linked operational pressures.

Degree Apprenticeships vs Full-time Degrees: A False Dichotomy

The notion that degree apprenticeships and full-time degrees are mutually exclusive options is fundamentally flawed. Both pathways have unique strengths and serve different needs within the education and employment ecosystem.

  • Practical Experience vs Academic Knowledge: Degree apprenticeships offer hands-on experience and immediate industry engagement, which can be highly beneficial in fields like engineering, healthcare, and IT. Conversely, full-time degrees provide in-depth theoretical research-based knowledge and critical thinking skills, essential in research-oriented and academic professions.
  • Flexibility and Accessibility: Degree apprenticeships are often more accessible to those who need to earn while they learn, reducing the financial burden associated with traditional university education. However, full-time degrees offer broader access to university resources, extracurricular activities, and life experiences that can be pivotal in personal and professional development.
  • Career Outcomes and Lifelong Learning: While degree apprenticeships are directly linked to employment in specific industries, full-time degrees offer a wider range of career possibilities and pathways for further education. The ability to switch fields or pursue a different career is more feasible with a traditional degree pathway.

Value for Money: A Unified Approach

Both degree apprenticeships and full-time degrees represent valuable investments in the nation’s future. Arguing the value for money case requires acknowledging that both pathways should be funded effectively through external fiscal means, such as employer contributions to the apprenticeship levy and student loan repayments funnelling back into government coffers. This broader, less headline-grabbing approach ensures a balanced and sustainable funding model for both educational routes.

Policy Implications and the Future of Education

Any approach to shutting down courses with high dropout rates and poor achievement outcomes in order to reallocate funds to more “valuable” educational pathways is a strategy that oversimplifies the complexity of educational needs and outcomes.

The future of education should not be viewed through a binary lens of degree apprenticeships versus full-time degrees. Instead, a holistic approach that values both pathways and addresses their respective challenges is essential. Policymakers, educators, and industry leaders must collaborate to create a flexible and inclusive education system that meets the diverse needs of all learners.

A comprehensive strategy for higher and technical education must address both fiscal and skill-based sustainability, regardless of political bias. A financially sustainability model for both routes also requires a deeper alignment of educational programmes with industry needs, offering flexible learning pathways, and promoting lifelong learning.

A holistic policy approach is crucial here, emphasising collaboration across sectors, ensuring equitable access, and continuously improving quality. By valuing and integrating both degree apprenticeships and full-time degrees, policymakers should establish a resilient education system that offers better value for money for all its stakeholders and equips learners with the essential skills for success in today’s economy.

By Thomas Burton, Head of Apprenticeship Delivery, York St John University

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