From education to employment

Mandated degrees in high-level apprenticeships matter

Mandated degrees in high-level apprenticeships matter, argues white paper

Degree apprenticeships were first introduced in 2015, and have since grown in popularity among employers and learners alike. However, their success highlighted fears from some parts of the sector, notably publications such as FE Week, that the purpose of apprenticeships – to provide an alternative training route to traditional academics for young people – was being compromised by the rapid growth of these higher apprenticeships.

Degree apprenticeships, as a consequence, have become something of a political football. The Augar review, which made a series of welcome points about the importance of the FE sector, argued for a better balance in support for post-16 skills training versus university degrees. Last year, the government announced that it was going to scrap the target, established in the New Labour years, for 50% of all school-leavers to go to university.

Fears have been growing that the government will further seek to decouple degree or master’s qualifications from higher apprenticeships, after it instructed the Institute for Apprenticeships and Technical Education (IfATE) to de-mandate MBAs from the Senior Leader standard.

In this context, Aptem, the EdTech provider and data leader which publishes frequent thought-leadership papers and articles, decided to explore the purpose of mandated qualifications in higher apprenticeships. It coincided with the IfATE’s consultation into degree apprenticeships, with a focus on integration, quality and qualifications, and with the overall aim to distil good practice, re-examine the rationale for mandated qualifications (to perhaps loosen the criteria) and look at integrated end-point assessments.

Overall, we argued that the sector shouldn’t set up a competition between post-16 skills training and the higher apprenticeships taught in universities. It is important, we believed, to revisit why degree apprenticeships are a valuable addition to the sector. Here’s what we found.

Why degree apprenticeships?

Degree apprenticeships were not only a way of ensuring higher-level skills to meet the demands of the ‘Fourth Industrial Revolution’, they were also about challenging the academic/vocational class divide.

We don’t have the space to explore the entire history of degree apprenticeships – one section in the white paper discusses it – but we did directly ask Vince Cable, then Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills (BIS) when the policy was being innovated, how it evolved. This is what he said:

“Part of the genesis of degree apprenticeships was the university and college sectors marketing degrees as the equivalent of Level 4+ qualifications. When I was the political head of BIS, I seized on the idea as a way of boosting the value of apprenticeships to persuade ambitious and capable young people (and their parents) that apprenticeships were not an alternative to university but another way of progressing to degree qualifications, and a way of being paid to learn rather than paying to learn.

“The biggest barrier to expanding higher apprenticeships (above Level 3), in my view, is academic snobbery; the more we can integrate apprenticeships with the qualifications of academic institutions the more their attractions will prevail.”

In other words, evolving the higher-level apprenticeships with university-accredited qualifications could usefully erode the class-based divide between academic and skills pathways.

In that respect, given the degree of take-up among large employers and established professionals, they are a success. The challenge, as ever, is widening participation – making sure degree apprenticeships have a diverse cohort. However, there have been some successes. UVAC points out that for the Senior Leader standard, when it had an MBA attached, over half of Senior Leader starts were in the public sector – the NHS, police forces or local authorities. It had higher proportions of women as starts than ordinary MBAs and from ‘left behind’ regions. We don’t yet know the impact of removing the MBA.

So far, so good. But what do degree apprenticeships deliver for the economy, society and individuals? I’d argue there are three core benefits, all of which we cover in detail in the white paper: productivity, transferrable skills and social mobility/social justice. Let’s look at each of these in turn.


We know the UK has a huge skills shortage. We hear a lot these days about skills shortages in agriculture, transport, and other essential roles. However, the Department for Education (DfE) Skills Survey 2020 identified that a quarter of all vacancies are skills-deficit related, with 60% of those in medium- and high-skilled roles. And skills are strongly related to productivity. The Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BIS) estimated that poor leadership skills cost the UK economy £19 billion a year through lower productivity.

The evidence shows that degree qualifications improve productivity. The same BIS report said that a 1% rise in the number of people with a university degree contributed to a .2 to .5% increase in productivity.

So far, of course, that shows that higher-level skills are needed. But do we need a degree? Not necessarily, as some in our white paper argued. However, currently levels 6 and 7 are generally taught through universities, and universities are largely structured around the degree. The DfE may hope that a cultural shift will occur, with higher-level skills being taught outside of the degree. However, degrees are popular. Moreover, it is more likely, and perhaps more valuable from a quality argument, that universities will retain what they are good at and simply enhance this with vocational learning and support.

Soft and transferrable skills

Occupational and competency skills are regularly talked up at policy level, and it is absolutely critical that UK employees have the right skills to do 21st-century jobs. Too often, young people leave education without the skills employers are looking for, which causes harm to individuals as well as the labour market.

However, academic and vocational degrees offer high-level transferrable skills critical both to the economy and to an individual’s ability to move around jobs and occupations.

However, we know that soft and transferrable skills are in high demand and boost productivity. While they can be learned on the job over time, degrees (whether in the form of an apprenticeship or a traditional academic structure) offer a focused opportunity to learn them.

Universities also excel at teaching transferrable, high-level skills. Managing Director of Hays Belgium, Robbie Vanuxem, argues that university teaches students four key transferrable skills: self-motivation and tenacity; time-management and working under pressure; thirst for learning and self-improvement, and interpersonal and communication skills. There are more, and we explore them in the white paper.

Transferrable skills equip individuals with job-market resilience, meaning that people can have the capacity to explore several careers throughout their lives, and are forward-looking, meaning people can adapt to fast-moving change. This shows in the fact that more professions are embracing degrees – not just because it’s becoming the norm, but because of what they offer.

In 2020, it was announced that all new police recruits would need a degree. Too much of an ask? For some, yes. However, police officers need a different skillset these days – cybercrime, handling domestic abuse and hate crime, to name a few areas, need higher-level reasoning, technical and emotional skills. Studies of US policing brought together in an article in The Conversation said that police officers with degrees were less likely to use violence, had more problem-solving skills, better understood communities, could identify best practice and had more leadership skills than those without.

Social mobility and social justice

In the white paper, we explore the statistics on widening participation in degree apprenticeships and it is evident there is a need for improvement, particularly given they have such potential to deliver on greater equality of access when university fees are so high. Debt is a huge barrier to engagement in higher education with all its benefits for social mobility and higher incomes.

However, this is not a concept problem but an application problem. And overall, I’d argue that degree apprenticeships are not skewing funding away from those who need it and failing to deliver on social mobility. Degree apprenticeships train individuals for free, and indeed with a wage, in higher-level skills, giving them opportunities throughout their working lives. Although degree apprenticeships are justified in the terms of productivity and skills shortages, as UVAC argues:

“Regrettably, in most of the reports on apprenticeship and social mobility little connection is made between supporting social mobility and tackling skills gaps and shortages in the UK economy.”

The degree apprenticeship standards with the biggest volumes are: Chartered Manager; Chartered Surveyor; Civil Engineer; Digital Technology Solutions Professional; Healthcare Science Practitioner; Manufacturing Engineer; Police Constable; Registered Nurse; Senior Leader; Social Worker – much-needed, but definitely not elite, professions.

I’d argue that, when considering issues of social mobility and social justice, more effort needs to be made on ensuring that individuals can get on a ladder of opportunity. That means enhancing funding, not arguing over who should get a portion of a too-small pot.

Overall, we know that the UK needs to enhance skills and opportunities at all levels. So as a sector, let’s stop firing arrows at each other, do the work on establishing the value of what each part of the academic and vocational sectors offers, and maximise the opportunities for individuals to achieve a better life.

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