The government has reformed apprenticeships by attempting to make them recognised as equal, not inferior, to university. The scheme involves more than 400 businesses including PwC, Microsoft and John Lewis. Government statistics1 found that the numbers of 16 and 17-year-olds in apprenticeship schemes has risen by 15 percent this year and the National Audit Office even estimates that for every pound invested in apprenticeships by the government it gives £18 back to the economy.
Apprenticeship is a pure and respected word. It conjures images of an olden days’ fresh-faced youth taken under an employer’s wing to learn the tricks of the trade before becoming an expert themselves – oh, and with a made-to-fit job on the side, thanks. This is much opposed to modern Britain’s focus on grades and seemingly degree-level aspirations for all.
Whilst the government promise to work to ensure all young people fulfil their potential, this is not reflected by everyday experience. A study2 by the left-wing think tank Institute for Public Policy Research shows that the number of university graduates is far outstripping the number of high-skilled jobs in Britain, which are predicted to only account for a third of jobs between 2012 and 2022 whilst low and medium-skilled jobs, for which a degree is not needed, account for over two-thirds.
The findings culminate in the IPPR’s recommendation that “Britain needs stronger and better-quality vocational education, coupled with new business models that make better use of workforce skills and enable companies to move up the value chain to take advantage. This will require employers to engage in a more meaningful way in vocational education and skills development than they do currently”.
This call by experts is designed to match an economy where large numbers of jobs rely on a vocational education. Degrees are more expensive after the introduction of £9,000 a year tuition fees, but they may be less valuable. Unsurprisingly a fifth of workers in low-skilled occupations have a higher education qualification, striking fears that students’ fees and taxpayers’ financial investment into higher education is going to waste.
The IPPR’s study leaves the government’s removal of the limit on university places3 as either bewildering or stinking of an attempt at winning the global education race. The 60,000 extra school leavers now able to go to university means an eventual cost to the taxpayer of £2bn. Policy-makers may have overlooked the complexity of the job market and focused too much on increasing the number of graduates.
The coalition’s promise to make apprenticeships into a respected alternative is simply not being fulfilled. A recent school leaver said that her comprehensive careers service “didn’t even mention apprenticeships or going straight into work after school. It was as if there was no other option but university. Everything was geared towards UCAS and getting a place. I didn’t really think about any other option”.
No wonder that, even with a deterrent from university worth tens of thousands of pounds of debt, apprenticeships are seen as undesirable. Beyond a shoddy careers service, apprenticeships face another struggle: not only do they have to be advertised in a positive light by university-educated teachers who may never have worked outside a school, they have to be implemented correctly by businesses to be of any value.
To become desirable, apprenticeships must represent a real opportunity and accessibility. If the wages are so low that an apprentice cannot pay rent or feed their children, the schemes are not doing their job properly. Many apprentices’ need for decent wages is a reason why employers must be able to trust in an apprentice’s ability to communicate, time-manage and be punctual. Sometimes this is not a reality.
Simon Hughes, the deputy leader of the Liberal Democrats, said that apprenticeships aren’t seen as a positive way to get recruits by employers. He added that there was need for a reformed system where everyone knows what they’re getting at the end of the process and what this was worth in terms of future employment.
Balanced between the world of work, education and government, apprenticeships need more than a change in written policy, they need a change in how they’re perceived – from an inferior alternative to university to being accepted and treated as a worthwhile option; from a cheap way to get employment to a valuable investment in a business’s future. The only easy prediction is that any substantial change is going to take years.