Expanding degree apprenticeships for 18 year-olds  

 By Mandy Crawford-Lee

As a point of principle, apprenticeships in England must never again be seen as “a programme for other people’s children”, “a programme primarily for young people not in education, employment or training” or “a programme for adults furthest away from the labour market.” 

Apprenticeships are a skills programme and specifically an employer skills programme. They must be delivered as a productivity focused programme that can also support social mobility, social inclusion, levelling-up and the achievement of net zero agendas.  

In short, apprenticeships are an employer funded programme designed to raise productivity through improved workforce performance. 

Apprenticeships must retain a clear purpose and must remain an employer-led programme. 

Apprenticeships in England have evolved to such an extent that they are no longer a further education programme. In order to support growth, the language of employers, professions and higher education must be used in the apprenticeship system.

An all-age, all-level programme 

As well as being employer-driven, apprenticeships must be an all age-all level programme. Focusing on apprenticeships just for young people at Level 2 and 3 will not tackle our productivity problem. To prioritise apprenticeships at lower levels for young people would totally undermine their potential contribution to productivity and social mobility.  

All age higher and degree apprenticeships 

If the UK is to tackle its productivity gap it must raise the skills levels and the productivity of the existing workforce, that is new entrants and existing workers in their 20s, 30s, 40s, 50s and 60s. This means degree apprenticeships at Level 6 should be available to young people and older workers too.  

Degree apprenticeships are increasingly seen, quite rightly, as being equivalent to traditional ‘academic’ programmes. Yet, we should remember degree apprenticeships are not an alternative to university; they are a university programme typically delivered by a university and involving the award of a degree.  

Social mobility and degree apprenticeships 

The debate on social mobility and degree apprenticeships is confused for two reasons.  

The first is failure to understand that degree apprenticeships can support social mobility for individuals of all ages. The second is a misguided view that degree apprenticeships are an alternative to university for young people and therefore more degree apprenticeships should be limited to school and college leavers aged 18 and 19.  

Even so, degree apprenticeships for young people have the potential to make a great contribution to social mobility and productivity.  

Social mobility and degree apprenticeships for young people 

Ever since their launch in 2015, degree apprenticeships (and to an extent higher apprenticeships) have been criticised for not delivering on the social mobility agenda.  

In 2018, at a very early stage of their introduction, the then Skills Minister told a House of Lords inquiry into the economics of further, higher and technical education of fears of a “middle-class grab” of degree apprenticeships. The minister also said that degree apprenticeships at Level 6 - as with higher apprenticeships at Level 4-5 – offered a “really great opportunity to boost social justice and social mobility.” 

But they made clear this would only be achieved if “if we make sure that we widen access to them.”   

Reports suggest, however, that degree apprenticeships are harder to get into than Oxbridge. Perversely 64 per cent of teachers say they would not recommend them to high achieving students even though they are endorsed by two critical stakeholders: parents and students. 

More degree apprenticeships at age 18 

Although not the only aim for degree apprenticeship policy, much more can and should be done to make them available to more 18-year-olds who after completing full-time further education wish to combine a job with a Level 6 apprenticeship. 

In the private sector, employers need to be able to use higher and degree apprenticeships to recruit and train scientists, engineers, programmers and AI data specialists.  

In the public sector, the NHS has been able to use apprenticeships to support healthcare assistants to train as nursing associates, as well as supporting healthcare assistants and nursing associates to train as registered nurses.  

Such new progression routes support social mobility, particularly for those aged 24 and over, but can also offer opportunities for those who leave school and college at age 18.    

Apprenticeships at higher levels do offer the opportunity to develop new progression routes to the professions that will be particularly appealing to those from underserved communities and young people leaving school and college. Such opportunities should be developed and promoted.   

To monitor progress, an annual apprenticeship survey and report should be produced by the Institute for Apprenticeships and Technical Education (IfATE). This could summarise the skills challenges and opportunities facing England. The report could also consider how apprenticeships have been used to tackle skills gaps and shortages, social mobility, the provision of public sector services and the net zero agenda and identify improved opportunities for 18-year-olds transitioning from work, school or college and stepping into the next level of their learning and career. 

Levy payers should continue to be able to use levy payments to fund degree apprenticeships, including recruiting 18-year-olds onto them. 

The decision to remove co-investment of 5% by non-levy payers for young people aged under 22 on apprenticeships at all levels is welcome, not least because SMEs will not have to pay towards the cost of degree apprenticeships for young people aged under 22. 

Ideally, the end of co-investment should apply to under 25, which again would provide an incentive to take 23 and 24 year-olds onto degree apprenticeships. 

We should also consider promoting existing incentives to employers for taking on apprentices under the age of 25. Currently, employers do not pay employer national insurance contributions of 13.8% on young apprentices including those on degree apprenticeships. 

Mandy Lee-Crawford is Chief Executive of the University Vocational Awards Council