According to government figures, students from deprived backgrounds are 41 per cent less likely to attend the UK’s top universities, while apprentices are twice as likely to come from the most deprived backgrounds as university students.
There are different ways of looking at these statistics. On the one hand, since the proliferation of apprenticeship schemes was part of a government initiative to improve social mobility, the growth in apprenticeship numbers must be considered a veritable success.
On the other hand, what does this say about our universities? If those from disadvantaged backgrounds are increasingly pushed into apprenticeship schemes, will university degrees continue to be the preserve of the middle classes?
As someone who completed an apprenticeship before heading off to do an undergraduate degree, I’ve seen both sides of the coin – the different learning frameworks, the different environments, and the different outlooks of apprentices and university students.
I feel that apprenticeships must be celebrated if they tangibly improve social mobility. But when a young person starts planning their future, they shouldn’t be constrained by perceptions of whether a particular pathway is “for them” based on their background. Any comparable success in social mobility in apprenticeship schemes shouldn’t let top universities off the hook – they should learn from these schemes as to how they can better appeal to potential applicants from a broader range of backgrounds.
At my university, Oxford, there are next to no part-time undergraduate degrees offered, and students are forbidden from having term-time jobs. Anyone who has a job or any dependents – in other words, the majority of the country – is automatically and arbitrarily excluded from studying here.
Particularly given Oxford’s tutorial system, it would be especially easy to arrange tuition to accommodate differences in the pace at which people want to take their studies. As a full-time student here, for example, all of my tutorials are arranged for me one to two months in advance and I can choose how many I wish to have in a particular term. If I can have this flexibility, why couldn’t part-time students as well?
Part-time courses notwithstanding, universities such as Oxford still have a long way to go to make their courses more accessible to those from disadvantaged backgrounds. Pilot schemes such as the foundation year at my college, Lady Margaret Hall, which actively seeks out disadvantaged students, have demonstrated that social background need not be a barrier to academic success. The university is preparing a wider roll-out its own foundation year, but with a planned intake of 50 students, scarcely more than 1 per cent of the typical annual undergraduate intake, the proposed scheme remains a drop in the ocean.
The creation of degree apprenticeships offers an opportunity for universities to collaborate with employers to deliver technical skills learning, and thereby open themselves up to students from a wider range of backgrounds with a plurality of vocations. So far, however, most Russell Group universities aren’t showing much interest in degree apprenticeships, leaving the schemes to be developed by smaller, less wealthy universities. A roll-out of degree apprenticeships by the Russell Group could make schemes more attractive to applicants and could bridge a perceived divide between higher and technical education.
But it’s not all about what universities can do. Apprenticeship schemes need to prove not just that they are valuable to those who won’t go to university, but also that they are a viable alternative for those who will. I started an apprenticeship after leaving school, and while I enjoyed it, I later left because of a fear that without a degree, I would have less career flexibility. This is the same fear that drives others to avoid apprenticeships in the fist place.
Many schemes are in their infancy, and it remains to be seen whether, five to 10 years into their career, apprentices have commensurate job opportunities as their graduate peers. But until a parity in career flexibility can be proven, it will be difficult for apprenticeship schemes to overcome the stigma they have in some quarters of being an inferior career route.
Finally, I continue to be dismayed at how higher education is presented to young people as a once-in-a-lifetime, be-all-and-end-all choice that they are forced to make at age 17 and will be stuck with for the rest of their lives.
In the future workforce, where individuals are likely to have longer working lifetimes and switch jobs and careers several times, continuous, mature education is vital. Students should be encouraged to view their education as a journey with a wide range of options at different stages, rather than as the start to a narrowly defined career path.
On 5 April, the UK’s Apprenticeship Levy will mark its third birthday. In the past three years there have been hundreds of thousands of new apprenticeship starts. As these schemes start to enter maturity, it’s time for the government to think about the higher education proposition for young people in a more joined-up, holistic way, to give them maximum flexibility and success whichever choices they make.
Author Bio: Simon Hunt is a third-year undergraduate student at the University of Oxford.