From education to employment

Should degrees be more like apprenticeships?

Andy Cook

The intake of Higher degree apprenticeships is increasing but what does this mean for university courses? In this article, Andy Cook discusses how industry experience alongside vocational learning will create stronger, industry-ready, graduates.

In the application window that closed in January 2023, almost half of all UCAS users expressed an interest in apprenticeship opportunities (up 8.7% compared to January 2022).

UCAS polling revealed that “cost of living factors are making applicants re-evaluate their choice of subject based on value and future career prospects.”

Although the numbers remain small compared to degree applications, there has been an increase in degree level apprenticeships starts from 2022 to 2023. Level 6 and 7 starts increased by 11.1% to 30,710 in 2022/23, up from 27,630 in 2021/2022.

In the same period, university degree applications from UK 18-year-olds dropped slightly, from 320,420 in 2021/22 to 314,660 in 2022/23.

These numbers shouldn’t leave universities too worried yet, but the increasing appetite for degree-level apprenticeships does present a challenge to the vocational value and employment prospects of degree courses.

A binary choice?

Unfortunately, in the policy drive towards apprenticeships, an unhelpful binary narrative has emerged between degrees and apprenticeships.

Government support for apprenticeships has coincided with criticism of
“mickey mouse degrees” and the perception that some courses are “a waste of money” when it comes to employment prospects. In February, the Social Mobility Commission recommended that universities provide more information on the earnings implications of their courses.

This attack has been particularly directed at the arts and media courses, ignoring their vital role in delivering skilled workers for our creative industries, which generate £116 billion a year for the UK economy.

On the other hand, apprenticeships are seen as direct routes into employment, meeting the needs of industry. Writing in The Times at the turn of the year, chairman of PwC, Kevin Ellis, declared that middle-class teenagers are choosing apprenticeships over degrees because they want “better value for money”.

There are elements of this criticism that are valid. There are undoubtedly higher education courses that fail to equip students with the skills they need for work or make sufficient links into employment. But to write off the potential for deep learning and transferrable skills provided by degrees is short-sighted.

Degrees vs apprenticeships – the decision

For young people choosing between a degree or an apprenticeship is understandably a hard decision. I do not believe it is helped by such a conflicting narrative.

There’s good reason why degree level education has been championed since the start of the last Labour government. As research shows time and time again, it increases job opportunities and earning statistics, provides a starting point for many professions and enhances life skills, including independent living and relationship building.

However, with the increasing cost of living and concerns about student debt, it’s easy to see the attraction of higher degree apprenticeship. They immerse students into the world of work, providing a combination of on-the-job training and education, without the financial burden.

Yet apprenticeships are not without their drawbacks. Because the training and skills gained are tailored to a specific industry or role, learning can be restrictive. As has been identified in numerous reviews, the teaching quality and time allotted by some providers can also be a barrier to developing a broader selection of skills. Even at higher level apprenticeships, the balance between work and learning is very much in favour of work.

The third way

I believe that there is a third way to offer both analytic and vocational skills, and that universities are uniquely placed to deliver this.

At Ravensbourne University London, we believe a pedagogic framework should reflect the world of work and the needs of industry. Through tailored curriculums and partnering with employers, we ensure the skills and experience industry needs are woven into our courses – whether they be apprenticeships or traditional degrees.

Our new HE curriculum, launched last year, has a professional practice module embedded into every course, providing work-based learning opportunities in every year of student’s studies. These projects include real creative campaigns for brands such as ITV, prototyping products for people with additional needs with the design agency MIMA and collaborations with tech companies, including Amazon Web Services.

Skills for the future

Embedding the soft skills needed to navigate change is also vital. As part of The Jobs Reset Summit in 2020, The World Economic Forum identified the top 10 skills of the future. These include creativity, initiative, analytical thinking, problem solving and developing digital expertise.

Embedding the development of these soft skills into every course better prepares our students for the immense changes in the workplace that will result from the rapid pace of technologies such as AI and 5G. Our learning spaces also encourage interdisciplinary collaboration, with project teams drawn together from across departments.

This depth of learning is something I believe can only be achieved through a degree.

This is not to say that higher degree apprenticeships do not have an important role to play. What is most important is that learners choose the education that is best for them.

Making degrees more vocational can bring the best of higher and professional education together, meet key skills needs, enhance productivity, strengthen employer partnerships, and offer a new route into work.

At Ravensbourne, the result is that 87% of undergraduate students are employed within six months of graduation, with many going on to shape the industries that they have specialised in.

By Andy Cook, Vice Chancellor of Ravensbourne University London.

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  1. The perception there are “Mickey Mouse” degrees and “useless” courses in the arts is unfortunate. First off, plenty of people wind up in careers having nothing to do with what they studied. I’ve seen this over thirty years and have wound up the same (moving from economics and finance to marketing and communications).

    When I worked in financial modelling and pension fund consulting, the people who actually studied finance and economics amounted to around 10% of the employees in the 300+ staffed firm.

    The first point – university is primarily a filtering tool for employers. Finishing a university degree is evidence that someone can take on a huge challenge and complete it. Graduating, no matter the degree, takes years of study and discipline.

    In terms of arts being useless, a common perception, is ridiculous as art and creative study stimulates abstract thought – much like mathematics at the other side of the spectrum. Abstract thought and problem solving is a skill that is transferable to any job.

    The broader your education, the more adaptable you become to learn new things. The goal is to learn how to think, not what to think.