Higher apprenticeships – the way forward?

apprentices in workshopBy Heather Cameron

With the mounting costs associated with higher education study, it isn’t any wonder that young people are looking for alternative routes to their chosen career.

A recent survey has found that 4 in 10 of the first students to pay the higher tuition fees of up to £9,000 per year, say university is not good value.

Opinion varied between students doing different types of courses however. Two-thirds of those studying science, technology, maths and engineering – where a lot of practical teaching and staff time is required – said their courses had been good value.

It would seem that employers are also looking for more than just academic qualifications. It has always been something of a catch-22 situation for graduates who can’t get a job because they don’t have the required work experience, despite having relevant qualifications.

A recent study by the Institute for Public Policy and Research revealed that graduates and A-level students are three times more likely to be jobless a year after finishing their courses than apprentices. It also found that unemployment rates have risen at all levels of education, except within apprenticeships.

Higher apprenticeships

According to a study by ICM Research in 2013, those with a higher, degree-level, apprenticeship were rated by employers as the most employable, ahead of those who had university degrees. The top six qualifications rated the most valuable were:

  • Higher Apprenticeship
  • University degree
  • Advanced Apprenticeship
  • Intermediate Apprenticeship
  • Level 3 vocational qualification
  • A-Levels

Indeed, the many benefits to businesses of higher apprenticeships have been recently highlighted. They enable employers to gain links with universities and colleges which can help them to develop learning programmes based on the skills they need. The National Apprenticeship Service says that higher apprenticeships are critical to the economy as they:

  • respond to employers’ higher level skill needs;
  • support business growth;
  • meet individuals’ career aspirations;
  • and enhance opportunities for social mobility.

Higher apprenticeships, created in 2009, offer a work-based learning programme which includes the achievement of academic and vocational qualifications and learning from level 4 up to bachelor’s and master’s degrees at levels 6 and 7 respectively. Degree apprenticeships are the latest model to be developed as part of the higher apprenticeship.

Research by the Centre for Economics and Business Research (CEBR) has estimated that the lifetime benefit of undertaking an intermediate apprenticeship is extra earnings of between £48,000 and £74,000, and an advanced apprenticeship between £77,000 and £117,000.

This figure rises to over £150,000 for a higher apprenticeship, comparable to university graduates.

Roll out and take-up

In 2011 the government announced a £25 million fund to support up to 10,000 advanced and higher apprenticeships in order to help businesses, particularly small and medium sized enterprises (SMEs), gain the high level skills they need to grow.

The Higher Apprenticeship Fund (HAF) aimed to develop a range of higher level apprenticeships, and fund 20,000 apprentices by 2015. The fund was awarded to 29 higher apprenticeship projects, in sectors including accountancy, engineering and law. The government has announced an additional £40m to fund places up until July 2015, and an extra £20m to fund the higher educational element to the end of March 2016.

Following the introduction of the fund, the number of higher apprenticeship starts rose by 68% in 2011/12. There were almost 10,000 starts during 2012/13, representing growth of 165% on the previous year.

In the last academic year over 9,000 people started a higher apprenticeship, with numbers continuing to grow.

Role of universities in providing vocational education

With the growth in higher apprenticeships, universities and other higher education institutions (HEIs) have an important role to play in this provision. The 2015/16 academic year is the first time that there will be a substantial group of HEIs in the apprenticeships delivery network.

A collection of recent think pieces have made a strong case for greater vocational education through universities and colleges. One contributor notes that governments around the world widely accept that vocational education is the way to meet growing industry needs and fill identified skills gaps. But policy makers in the UK are faced with the obstacle of an old-fashioned education system.

It is clear that the traditional form of higher education is not going to supply businesses with the higher level skills needed for economic growth. According to research by the UK Commission for Employment and Skills (UKCES), by 2022, two million more jobs will require higher level skills. More than one in five of all vacancies are ‘skills shortage’ vacancies – where employers cannot find people with the skills and qualifications needed.

The research highlights the importance of collaborations between employers and universities in the supply of highly skilled people to meet this demand. It argues that universities and employers need to be innovative, and engaged in promoting different and non-traditional routes into higher skill roles.

Good practice evidence of such collaboration already exists in the UK, as showcased by the 12 case studies, which explore the reasons for and benefits of collaboration in six industrial sectors – Advanced Manufacturing, Construction, Creative and Digital, Energy, IT and Life Sciences.

Across a wide range of collaboration with employers, universities contributed more than £3.5 billion to the UK economy in 2012/13, a 5% increase from the previous year. Significant volumes of courses and continuing professional development (CPD) are also provided by UK HEIs directly to employers, with £423 million worth of business completed in 2012/13, of which £19 million was with SMEs.

Nevertheless, there is still much room for improvement. Policy makers, HEIs and businesses all need to work together if the drive towards higher level vocational education is to succeed.


The Idox Information Service can give you access to a wealth of further information on vocational education – to find out more on how to become a member, contact us.

Further reading

Polytechnics-plus: releasing the potential of colleges, IN Graduate Market Trends, Spring 2015, pp12-13

Higher apprenticeships better than university, IN Workplace Learning and Skills Bulletin, No 120 14 Jul 2014, pp2-3

Economic impact of apprenticeships: a Cebr report for the Skills Funding Agency. Centre for Economics and Business Research (2014)

Improving employability skills, enriching our economy: case study report. National Foundation for Educational Research (2014)

Tomorrow’s growth: new routes to higher skills. Confederation of British Industry (2013)

The potential for higher apprenticeships: research report. Learning and Skills Improvement Service (2013)

Some resources may only be available to members of the Idox Information Service

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