Apprenticeships have been pushed as the answer to our generation’s seemingly grisly job prospects. Rivalling David Cameron’s 2014 vow to fund an extra  three million apprenticeships, Ed Miliband recently pledged to create 80,000 extra apprenticeships a year, and Nick Clegg said that vocational education is no longer ‘the poor relation’. The blinding yellow safety jacket appears to have displaced the Party-coloured tie as the crucial extra to a politician’s uniform.

And yet, says a National Union of Students (NUS) report, potential apprentices are being shut out from the scheme as they cannot afford it. The report says: ‘Apprenticeships are often framed as a chance to “earn whilst you learn”. They supposedly offer a chance to gain a skill and a qualification whilst working in a “real” job with a wage. Yet for many apprentices their low wages quickly disappear on travel, rent and food’.

According to the report, ‘the minimum wage for apprentices is exploitative and not enough to cover basic living expenses’. The minimum wage, of £2.73 an hour, for apprenticeships is less than the national minimum wage for 18-20 year-olds – and even less in some circumstances, according to a 2014 Government report.

The NUS report suggests that apprentices are treated unfairly compared to their peers in full-time education, even though apprenticeships are being pushed as an equal alternative. For example, many school or college pupils aged 16-19 receive bursaries, such as the £1,200 vulnerable student bursary, and those beyond the age of 19 who are suffering financially can receive Discretionary Learner Support. These bursaries are not given to apprentices of the same age, though their wages are low. The report recommends extending these bursaries to apprentices.

Even apprentices working long hours may struggle to meet the weekly £111 a week needed to receive Statutory Sick Pay (SSP) if they are ill for less than four consecutive days. This means apprenticeships could find themselves without pay. The NUS suggests that the SSP should reflect hours worked rather than the amount earned, to account for those working more hours for less money.

Being an apprentice can negatively affect your family too. Parents of apprentices are denied child benefit and could lose their child tax credits, though parents of children in ‘approved’ full-time education are excused this financial penalty. The NUS argues that the apprentice wage is not enough to account for parents potentially losing thousands of pounds a year, and that apprenticeships should come under the ‘approved’ courses in which the child’s parents receive financial support.

As a result, many apprentices take jobs. One apprentice said in the report: ‘I also work part-time at a supermarket twelve hours a week on top of my 42-hour apprenticeship workload. This enables me not time to complete coursework. But it is essential I keep both jobs to ensure I can pay my bills at the end of the month’.

Joe Vinson, NUS Vice President (Further Education), hopes that the report will raise awareness and prompt action tackling the financial difficulties apprentices face.

He said: ‘Nobody is talking about the everyday reality for individual apprentices – it’s time we stopped talking about “the other 50 per cent” and actually took action to fix the huge inequalities that exist between these types of education. Expansion of places just isn’t good enough, and it’s hiding the truth – we really need a new deal for apprentices’.

The government maintains that apprenticeships are a viable alternative to traditional further education, providing ‘earn while you learn’ careers. David Cameron recently urged teachers to ensure their students are aware of apprenticeships.

A spokesman for the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills said to the BBC: ‘To support our hard-working apprentices we recently proposed that they should get an extra £1 an hour. We are waiting for the Low Pay Commission to get back to us on this idea. In the meantime, apprentices are earning an average of £6.79 to £11.63 an hour depending on their level of apprenticeship’.

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