Top apprenticeships are more elitist than degrees and are being colonised by the middle classes, a report says.
The research conducted by the London School of Economics and the University of Surrey for the Sutton Trust, a social mobility charity, shows that the overall number of apprenticeship starts declined sharply between 2015 and 2020.
Poorer school-leavers are particularly under-represented in higher-level apprenticeships, which are akin to an undergraduate or master’s degree. The research shows that a higher proportion of students taking an ordinary degree had been on free school meals than had those who started a degree apprenticeship last year.
These apprenticeships are lucrative opportunities offered by employers, such as Rolls-Royce and PwC. Apprentices study at university but do not pay tuition fees and are paid a salary and are usually guaranteed a job when they qualify.
The Sutton Trust said that only 5 per cent of those starting a degree apprenticeship in 2020-21 were from lower income homes, compared with 6.7 per cent of those going to university. It said this suggested that higher-level apprenticeships were less accessible than the university route for those from disadvantaged families.
The share of apprenticeships of all levels, in the most deprived areas of the country, decreased from 26 per cent to 20 per cent between 2015 and 2020, compared with an increase in affluent areas from 14 per cent to 18 per cent.
“More prosperous areas have benefited disproportionately from the expansion of degree apprenticeships,” the report said. “Strikingly, higher and degree apprenticeships are not more common among disadvantaged individuals than a university degree. From this perspective, it is hard to see higher and degree apprenticeships as a route to widen opportunities for individuals from poorer backgrounds.”
Overall, the number of apprenticeships fell by almost a quarter between 2017 and 2018. This was followed by an 18 per cent decline in apprenticeship starts during the pandemic, between the academic years 2018-19 and 2020-21. Starts for 2021-22 are still 11 per cent lower than three years earlier.
The decrease is mainly among lower-level apprenticeships; higher and degree apprenticeships have risen but young people have not benefited from that and nor have those from poorer homes. People aged over 25 account for the majority of those undertaking higher and degree apprenticeships.
“Those from low-income backgrounds are particularly under-represented in engineering and manufacturing, especially at higher levels,” the report said. “This gap is especially noticeable within degree apprenticeships. These sectors are associated with high earnings returns, highlighting that those from low-income backgrounds are less able to access the most financially rewarding apprenticeships.”
Sir Peter Lampl, founder of the Sutton Trust, said: “There are so few degree apprenticeships available that competition is inevitably fierce — and the sharp-elbowed middle classes have the edge when it comes to supporting their kids in that contest.
“The application process is hard to navigate. Opportunities are advertised at different times and they aren’t posted in a central, easy-to-access place. Young people from better-off homes tend to have more support from their families and so can be better placed to know when and where to find apprenticeships, as well as how to deliver a polished performance at interview.
“But the bigger issue is how few apprenticeships are going to under-25s. Many big employers use their apprenticeship levy budget to fund apprenticeships for their senior staff. If the government wants to deliver on its skills agenda, the levy has to be reformed to ensure these opportunities go to those who would benefit most.”
Lord Baker of Dorking, a former education secretary, said: “The problem is that many schools are not set up to help children get degree apprenticeships, they don’t have the contacts in the real world. There aren’t the number of new opportunities available that you would wish.” He said that the government should offer financial incentives to smaller businesses to offer apprenticeships, by paying half of the salary.
Baker added that companies using the apprenticeship levy to take on workers in low-skilled roles were not helping to close the country’s skills gap.
Annalee Macfarlane, 19, got three A*s in her A-levels at Portsmouth High School and offers from four universities. Instead she started a degree apprenticeship with Rolls-Royce. Now she is studying electronic engineering at Warwick University one day a week while working the other four. She earns a salary and will qualify with a degree.
She said: “I knew I wanted to go into engineering and this way I can get practical, hands-on experience as well as knowledge and a degree.”
She says the only downside is that she has 33 days holiday a year, generous for staff but not students. It was also hard to find openings, which took persistence and “a lot of googling”.
Behind the story
The first national apprenticeship system of training started in 1563, according to a report in the House of Commons library. In those days apprenticeships lasted seven years.
By the start of the 20th century there were a third of a million apprentices and in the 1960s, a third of boys left school to take up apprenticeships.
After decades of decline new schemes have sought to revive apprenticeships but have also wrangled over what they actually mean and whether they can apply across all industries.
The apprenticeship levy, introduced in 2016, compels all employers with a salary bill of more than £3 million to spend 0.5 per cent of it on apprenticeships (or forfeit the money).
Some companies have been criticised for using this levy to rebrand low-skill roles or to pay for executive training for middle-aged managers.
Degree apprenticeships, also set up in 2016, have been welcomed by companies, parents, schools and universities that are involved in the training. Ucas, the university admissions service, is trying to create a one-stop shop so that school-leavers can apply for apprenticeships alongside degrees.
Roles are currently available as nuclear scientists, civil engineers, chartered surveyors and project managers.
However, there were 43,000 degree apprenticeship starts in 2021 compared with almost 500,000 British people starting at university and they are particularly scant in some areas of the country.