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The missing piece of Sunak’s puzzle? Degree apprentices

This article first appeared in Times Education Supplement (Tes)

Degree apprenticeships have a vital role to play in the post-Covid recovery, write Robert Halfon and Quintin McKellar

The chancellor outlined in his summer statement today a new £2 billion “Kickstart Scheme” to create high-quality job opportunities for under-25s, as well as a payout for employers worth up to £2,000 for each new apprentice hire in England. These measures will go some way to supporting those who are facing an uncertain future due to the significant economic disruption in the wake of the pandemic.

The recovery from this crisis will be dependent on ensuring access to flexible work and technical routes through education and into employment, but these opportunities have also been some of the biggest casualties of the disruption caused by the pandemic.

Recent research by the Sutton Trust identified that almost two-thirds of apprenticeships have been affected. More than a third of apprentices have been furloughed and many more have been made redundant.

Despite these challenges, apprenticeships could be a vital tool in ensuring that young people do not lose out on opportunities because of this pandemic. We are optimistic, then, that the prime minister’s recent commitments to guarantee apprenticeships and training opportunities to young people, as well as today’s funding announcements for new job opportunities, traineeships and apprenticeships, is a positive first step.

Delivering these commitments, and any-longer term apprenticeship guarantee, will require an ambitious and collaborative effort from government, employers and education and training providers in the coming years. While there remains a lot of detail to be worked out, this is a chance to collectively consider how we meaningfully and sustainably invest in apprenticeships and grasp the opportunity to strengthen our nation’s vocational offer for the benefit of individuals, employers and the economy.

The value of degree apprenticeships

However, we risk missing a key piece of the puzzle in degree apprenticeships, which have been noticeably absent from the coverage of the prime minister’s commitment and were not specifically mentioned in today’s summer statement.

Degree apprenticeships are a vital rung on the ladder of opportunity. We consistently hear from parents and young people that progression pathways are essential to making apprenticeships an attractive route for young people. Degree apprenticeships are not only vital to ensuring that parity of esteem exists between academic and vocational routes, but also, as the fastest-growing apprenticeship option, they demonstrate the need for more integration of knowledge and skills-based curricula throughout the education system.

It is no accident that degree apprenticeships are growing in institutions like the University of Hertfordshire and other University Alliance members, where practical, skills-based learning is inherent throughout all disciplines and types of degree course.

There is much more to be done to not only ensure that the opportunities and pathways for apprenticeships are better understood and expanded, but also that the people who need them are benefiting. The recent Social Mobility Commission report on apprenticeships starkly outlined the significant challenges ahead. There has been a 36 per cent decline in apprenticeship starts by people from disadvantaged backgrounds (compared with 23 per cent for others) and just 13 per cent of degree-level apprenticeships go to apprentices from disadvantaged backgrounds.

The good news is the report also finds that apprenticeships are one of the most effective means of boosting social mobility for workers from poorer backgrounds. Clearly, though, we cannot assume this will be automatic and as we look at how to make an apprenticeship guarantee a reality, we must focus significant efforts on how disadvantaged young people get into and progress through the system. Universities, working in tandem with government and employers, can and must do more to boost the numbers of disadvantaged students accessing higher education through degree apprenticeships.

Economic recovery from the coronavirus

Failing to include degree apprenticeships as part of an apprenticeship guarantee would not only be a strategic misstep in terms of raising the esteem of the whole system and its social mobility potential, but also in supporting the post-pandemic economic recovery.

Before the pandemic, degree apprenticeships were already addressing skills shortages and enhancing productivity in areas that will now be even more important, including manufacturing and the public sector, such as nursing, social work and policing. University of Hertfordshire’s degree apprenticeships programme includes partnerships with Airbus, Epson and MBDA, while also being one of the UK’s leading education providers for the public sector, particularly for local government and the region’s NHS trusts.

This sort of practice will be essential to navigating immediate public sector skills shortages and demands; a role that is supported by the public, as over 50 per cent of those recently polled view training public sector workers as a priority of universities in supporting the national recovery effort.

Through developing an apprenticeship guarantee, universities, businesses, employers and the government could work together to build an agile response to the workforce challenges of the future. The economic fall-out of the pandemic will compound existing challenges, such as rapid changes to the world of work from the fourth industrial revolution. Degree apprenticeships will be an essential mechanism for meeting increased demand for higher-level skills from employers, including leadership and management skills, as captured in the 2019 CBI/Pearson Education and Skills Survey.

A chance to protect and extend opportunity

The commitment in principle to an apprenticeships guarantee is an opportunity to learn lessons, rethink and improve apprenticeships policy, but we must also ensure that current apprentices are protected. The stories we hear from employers that have had to furlough or make redundant existing apprentices is one of extreme reluctance in the face of an unprecedented crisis. All current apprentices need to be guaranteed the opportunity to restart as soon as practicable and supported to transition to new employers where necessary.

Given that more than a third of employees are furloughed in some UK towns, we also cannot lose sight of the need to ensure that there are upskilling and reskilling opportunities for people of all ages, and that there is coherence across all vocational education and training routes.

There are challenges, but also opportunities aplenty in the months and years ahead. We must build on the announcements in the summer statement today and continue to raise our collective ambitions for the whole apprenticeship system and its contribution to the post-pandemic recovery, but we should not forget the vital role degree apprenticeships have to play within that.