A-level results day is still fresh in the memory of many, with thousands of students across the country discovering the outcome of two years of work. Based on figures from recent years, we can expect over a quarter of these students to go directly to university – with roughly a further quarter opting for university before the age of 30.
The question is, both for the students themselves and the UK economy: is University the best option? The alternative route – higher and degree apprenticeships – has struggled thus far to compete with the draw university has to students.
In this post, we consider the real value of university versus that of apprenticeships – and which factors are taken into account when choosing between educational routes.
Comparing the numbers
While the number of college-leavers going directly to university is at an all-time high, the numbers are not so healthy for apprenticeships. In 2016-17, just 59,020 people under 19 started an apprenticeship. It’s a figure dwarfed by the 402,465 under-21s enrolling at university in the same year.
According to a recent Newsnight feature on apprenticeships, just a fraction of those 59,020 people are enrolling on higher apprenticeships, which is above A-level standard.
The skills shortage
At the same time, there is a skills shortage emerging in several sectors of the UK economy, which could lead to bigger problems post-Brexit as it becomes more difficult to attract those skills from other EU countries. Already, almost three quarters of service businesses are struggling to hire the people they need.
Clearly, something needs to be done to fix this issue. Over the past few years, we’ve seen universities diversifying the degree courses on offer trying to meet the needs of employers and the economy. It’s now possible to study for a degree in agriculture, construction or engineering, aiming to close the ‘skills gaps becoming evident in these areas’. However, you can also study Surf Science, Bowling Industry Management and David Beckham. Do these courses adequately provide students with the skills they need to flourish in the workplace, and provide employers with candidates that are ready to hit the ground running upon entering the world of work? Are some University degrees becoming too niche and therefore having a negative impact on the learner experience and their future careers?
One of the main issues with university courses, however, is that they teach “in abstract”. Students learn about topics very broadly, often lacking the specific practical skills they can transfer to a role after graduation.
That’s exactly where higher apprenticeships and degree apprenticeships can be more beneficial. Apprenticeships prepare people for careers with transferable skills and training in a real-world environment. They have a high level of flexibility, allowing employers to engage with course design and tailor the course to the needs of both their business and the learner.
The problem we face is that apprenticeships have been wrongly regarded as only for ‘low level’, manual roles requiring limited skills and gaining low wages. This would therefore mean that workers could remain low-skilled after completing their training programme, which ultimately detracted from the true value of apprenticeship schemes. Dispelling this myth, the British Think Tank Reform have found that almost half of the apprenticeship started over the past two years have been at intermediate level.
Arguably, Apprenticeships can be limited in regard to training, as they often don’t offer the specialist qualifications or level of study some employers are looking for. This has been partially rectified by the introduction of degree apprenticeships, where students can achieve a full bachelor’s or master’s degree as part of their training. These are a relatively new – and growing – development for vocational higher education in England, but aim to support students going from a technical role into management.
Why are universities favoured?
There are a range of factors that contribute to the choice between university courses and apprenticeships. Statistics show that graduates are the most employed group, more likely to work in high-skilled posts and have a higher annual pay. While it’s clear that, on average, people who have completed an apprenticeship don’t earn quite as much as graduates, these figures are largely focussed on the intermediary roles mentioned above.
Parental pressure also has a role to play. Unfortunately, there is still an overwhelming opinion that apprenticeships are inferior to university education and lead to lower lifetime pay and limited career options.
Arguably the central factor, however, is a lack of information about alternatives to university from a young age. Throughout their school careers, students are swamped with information about university, with just 15% of parents reporting that their child received any information about alternatives like apprenticeships.
With no student debt, earnings while you learn, highly-transferable skills and tailored on the job training, apprenticeships offer a whole range of benefits for both learners and employers. But there’s no chance of learners choosing this route if they’re not made aware of the potential successes.
Supply and demand
More people favouring university could mean a lack of demand for higher apprenticeship courses, especially if the courses are not being made available to students who are suitable for them.
However, the demand from employers is also a crucial part of the equation. Employers need to work hand-in-hand with training providers to develop challenging and relevant courses that will spark the interest of potential learners, whilst teaching them the core skills to develop their career path. The best and most effective apprenticeship courses are those that have allowed employers to play a central role in both design and delivery, providing the opportunity for support where necessary.
Educators must keep employability at the core of their offering too. They have opportunities to learn from industry and understand what skills will be needed in the future, and how education structures need to evolve to fit with these changes.
Any investment in skills and training should be seen as a positive step to improving the ability to compete in a post-Brexit Britain, where eCommerce dominates, and labour availability is at a record low – whatever the route taken (or age) to start their training. Both methods of study are highly regarded by top UK employers, with apprenticeships now becoming more widely accepted by the leading employers in London and leading supply chain organisations across the globe. It can be a tough choice to make.
Learners need to be advised adequately and encouraged to consider the qualifications and experience they already hold, what they would like to gain from study and the career path they would like to take. All these factors can have significant effects on the best method of study for each individual.
Bis Henderson Academy
At Bis Henderson Academy, we believe there should be no barriers to education or the development of our future business leaders, and so work with business leaders to develop apprenticeship level training programmes to support the key roles within their logistics operation. By involving employers in every step of the delivery process, we can ensure the needs of their business are being met alongside the needs of their learners – ultimately delivering an apprenticeship level programme suitable for all. Our bespoke training programmes allow for flexibility, diversity and focuses on developing the exact competencies needed to ensure that each learner feels confident, competent and feels motivated in their chosen career path.
Feel free to contact our team to talk more about apprenticeship level training for your first line managers and the development opportunities they could provide to your staff.