Looking beyond: celebrating the value and diversity of apprenticeships

National Apprenticeship Week 2020 encourages us to ‘look beyond’ old preconceptions of apprenticeships. Dr Brooke Storer-Church discusses the increasing importance of degree apprenticeships to a diverse and inclusive higher education offer.

An office apprentice and supervisor looking at a computer screen

The Office for Students (OfS) is committed to promoting opportunity and choice for all students. Supporting a wide range of provision is key to that mission. Degree apprenticeships play an important part in creating pathways to higher education and employment for learners from all backgrounds.

Degree apprenticeships were introduced in 2015. They offer learners the opportunity to earn while they learn: to study for a higher education qualification alongside working at least 30 hours a week. They provide an alternative route to higher education for those who feel a three-year, full-time, campus-based course isn’t for them. They also provide a route into higher education for people looking to progress their careers or start new ones.

Degree apprenticeships offer learners choice, enable them to achieve high-quality outcomes, and support the needs of employers and the economy. The OfS works with a variety of sector bodies to support their delivery. They demonstrate how new types of provision can help improve student access, participation and success. Through diversifying programme options, they can widen the attractiveness and suitability of higher education for more students.

Jargon buster

Degree apprenticeship: A degree apprenticeship is an apprenticeship where the employee is studying for an undergraduate (Level 6) or postgraduate (Level 7) degree as part of their apprenticeship.

Standards: Apprenticeship standards show what an apprentice will be doing and the skills required of them by job role. Standards are developed by employer groups known as ‘trailblazers’.

Growth in degree apprenticeships

There are over 300 higher apprenticeship standards currently approved for delivery by the Institute for Apprenticeships and Technical Education. Of these, 68 are Level 6 and 23 are Level 7 degree apprenticeships.

There are a wide variety of standards, ranging from aerospace engineering to social work. The Level 7 senior leader standard is the most popular, with 3,379 people starting this apprenticeship in 2018-19. This is closely followed by the Level 6 chartered manager standard, with 2,807 learner starts.

New standards are being developed all the time. There are currently eight new Level 6 standards in development. In December 2019, three new standards at Level 6 or 7 were approved for delivery: creative industries production manager (Level 7), harbour master (Level 6) and senior professional economist (Level 7).

Along with the growth of relevant standards, degree apprentice numbers are increasing. Since 2016-17, there has been a steep increase in degree apprenticeship starts. In 2016-17 there were 1,614 Level 6 and 20 Level 7 starters. This has increased to 9,561 Level 6 and 3,932 Level 7 starts in 2018-19.

This means that more employers are recognising the value of degree apprenticeships for recruitment and retention of employees. It also means that more than 13,000 apprenticeships started in 2018-19.

Who is doing degree apprenticeships?

We are now starting to understand more about who is undertaking degree apprenticeships. 28 per cent of 2016-17 Level 6 degree apprenticeship entrants are from geographical areas underrepresented in higher education (POLAR quintiles 1 and 2). This is slightly higher than the proportion entering similar full-time traditional higher education courses where 26 per cent of entrants are from POLAR quintiles 1 and 2. This suggests that degree apprenticeships can improve representation for some groups.

Degree apprenticeships also attract a high proportion of mature learners. In 2016-17, 65 per cent of Level 6 apprentices were over 21, compared to only 26 per cent of full-time traditional higher education courses.

But there are some underrepresented groups that aren’t taking up degree apprenticeships as much as traditional higher education. Apprenticeships at all levels – not only at Levels 6 and 7 – had lower proportions of minority ethnic groups and entrants with declared disabilities than similar higher education courses.

The OfS will continue to monitor degree apprenticeship entrant access and progression rates. We will publish updated analysis of Level 6 and Level 7 apprenticeships later this year. And as the numbers of degree apprenticeships and students increase, we will look at our growing body of effective practice examples to identify what more can be done to encourage all groups of learners to undertake degree apprenticeships.

Student choice

So, what do we know about why learners take up degree apprenticeships?

Last year, the OfS commissioned a report by Wavehill Research to understand why people choose degree apprenticeships. One of its key findings was that a quarter of respondents it surveyed said they would not have pursued any other form of qualification or training had it not been for the degree apprenticeship offer. The report also highlighted that the top motivating factor for choosing a degree apprenticeship was the opportunity to study for a degree while earning a salary.

These findings start to demonstrate how degree apprenticeships can reach those people who may never previously have considered higher education, or thought it wasn’t for them. The fact that degree apprenticeships allow learners to study for a degree without incurring tuition fees may provide increased incentives for those who would otherwise be put off by the prospect of student loan repayments. The extent to which that plays a role in decision making is important to all of us seeking to address barriers to accessing and succeeding in higher education, and to ensuring equality of opportunity.

Looking beyond…

The increase in the number and variety of apprenticeship standards available and the increase in demand for degree apprentices is hugely encouraging. We encourage all universities and colleges to consider the extent to which alternative types of provision like degree apprenticeships can help improve equality of opportunity and success for the widest possible group of students.


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Published 07 February 2020

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