With A-level results announced earlier in the day, UCAS reported 409 000 successful university placements – up 3% against A level results day in 2014 and including 362,000 students accepted to their first choice. The 5% increase in 18 year olds and a 2% growth in those 19 has been at the expense of older students. There’s also been a fall in those registering as part-time students. These increases have been helped by the removal of the admissions cap as universities increasingly chase students, but they also confirm that, despite the fees and despite new plans to axe maintenance grants for the less well off, what used to referred to as the ‘academic route’ is, at least in the eyes of young people, increasingly the only route that provides at least some security in a world of precarious employment and the ‘graduatisation’ of even routine jobs.
Yet within minutes of A-level results being announced, Schools Minister Nick Gibb went on television reminding young people that the government had also provided apprenticeships as alternative to university, that two million have been created since 2010 and another three million are promised by 2020. Because apprenticeships are considered a good thing across the political spectrum, supported by both business leaders and trade unions as ways of rebalancing the economy, restoring the importance of manufacturing, maybe even returning to ‘how things used to be’?
Current problems with apprenticeships continue to be glossed over by most though. First of all, a school leaver with A-levels is going to find it hard to find a Higher Level Apprenticeship – a qualification that is equivalent to at least the early years of a degree – and might also include some university attendance. Data from the Skills Funding Agency (part of the Department of Business, Innovation and Skills) shows just 12,300 starts between August 2014 and April 2015. While this is more than 25% up on previous periods, only 700 have been by those under 19. There are more Advanced Level Apprenticeships, but during 2013/14, less than a third, just 35,600 were under 19. Small fry compared to the 250 000 plus who enrol for A-level. Many young people who do start apprenticeships also have academic qualifications that are at least equivalent to the apprenticeship level at which they start and so are not progressing. The majority of apprenticeships are still only at intermediate Level (equivalent to the GCSEs the majority of school leavers already have) last for 12 months and generally don’t offer automatic progression to an Advanced scheme.
Despite government promises, a lot needs to be done before young people really have a choice between the academic and the apprenticeship route.