David Cameron qualified his pledge to create three million more apprenticeships with ‘That’s three million more engineers, accountants, project managers’ http://press.conservatives.com/post/109906886845/david-cameron-a-britain-that-gives-every-child. Expanding the Higher Level apprenticeship will be considered fundamental to this, with the then Business Secretary, Vince Cable arguing at its 2012 launch that:
‘Investing in skills is central to our drive to boost business and productivity and make the UK more competitive… by radically expanding the number of degree level apprenticeships for young people, we will put practical learning on a level footing with academic study. This is an essential step that will help rebalance our economy and build a society in which opportunity and reward are fairly and productively distributed.’
(DBIS Press Release 08/12/11)
Higher Level qualifications were established as Level 4, 5 and 6 qualifications, equivalent to foundation degree study and above. Though it is possible to provide these through a workplace NVQ, employers were also encouraged to work with higher education institutions. There are some schemes like those at BBC where apprentices complete a course of university study, but the influence of private providers is also apparent.
As part of the new Trailblazer initiative –where apprenticeship training schemes are being rewritten to ensure higher levels of quality and to be more in line with specific employer requirements –degree level apprenticeships are now also being established with specifications soon available for everything from quantity surveying and accountancy to solicitor training. These will be designed to work with higher education institutions, not in competition with them.
The main problem is not about the design however. Though the number of Higher Level apprenticeship starts have continued to increase significantly, they still represent only a tiny fraction of the total number however – SFA data showing under 30,000 in existence at the end of 2014/15. With 19,300 starts during 2014/15, there were just over 1,000 starts by those under 19 and 15,000 by those under 25 or over. In the three months between August and October 2015, another 800 under 19 year olds started a Higher Level apprenticeship compared with the 250 000 placed in university for the new academic year.
The only sectors where Higher Level apprenticeships have any visible presence is in health and business management. They are virtually non-existent in engineering and manufacturing. Those employers that have wanted to, have continued to sponsor university students, so it is not clear why they would want to establish Higher Level apprenticeships instead. Secondly, the huge increase in the number of graduates means that employers have much less of a need to protect their future labour supply. Rather than employers finding it difficult to attract highly qualified graduates the issue for the current generation is to avoid being pushed down out of graduate employment.
With two thirds of apprentice starts continuing to be at intermediate Level, this mean that although schools have been criticised for not promoting them, apprenticeships are not an alternative to higher education for young people and schools should not pretend they are. With so few Higher Level starts also, the effect of apprenticeships on universities, even the ‘new’ post-92 institutions many of whom have a strong vocational emphasis, continues to remain unclear