Degree apprenticeships: reform them for the sake of social mobility, says Sutton Trust

New report finds rising numbers of older, well-off “MBA-style” learners are crowding out young people from disadvantaged backgrounds

A new report by the Sutton Trust questions whether degree apprenticeships “are delivering on their promises”, having found they are not reaching as many disadvantaged young people as intended.

Since they were introduced in 2015, the number of degree apprenticeships has risen rapidly – from 756 in 2015/16 to 13,587 in 2018/19.

Degree apprenticeships were intended to attract young people from underrepresented groups by combining academic learning with on-the-job training, offering the opportunity to ‘earn while you learn’ and graduate with employer-friendly skills and little or no debt.

However, the Sutton Trust report – written before the coronavirus crisis – reveals that more than half of degree apprenticeships at university are taken up by people aged 30 or over. Only 20% are aged 20 or under.

Furthermore, just 13% of degree apprenticeships come from the most deprived neighbourhoods, while 27% come from the most advantaged backgrounds.

The proportion of young apprentices from deprived communities taking up degree level apprenticeships has fallen (from 9% in 2016 to 6% last year). Among under-19s, degree apprentices are more than five times more likely to come from the most advantaged neighbourhoods.

At the same time the number of older apprentices from well-off areas has more than doubled (from 5% to 11%).

Master of Business Administration (MBA)-style senior leadership and chartered management courses are the biggest-growing type of degree apprenticeship and make up almost half (46%) of the entire degree apprentice cohort, as employers look to put their senior staff through these courses rather than train younger, less affluent employees.

Sir Peter Lampl OBE – British philanthropist and chairman of the Sutton Trust

“The growth of degree and higher apprenticeships in recent years is to be welcomed,” says Sutton Trust founder and executive director Sir Peter Lampl in the report’s foreword. “Apprenticeships are growing in stature among young people and employers.

“However, as today’s report shows, this growth hasn’t yet led to the necessary rise in opportunities.

“Many of the new degree apprenticeships are going to older and already experienced staff. There are still fewer than 4,500 degree level apprenticeships started by young people under 21 each year. More energy needs to be invested in creating genuinely new opportunities for those who will benefit most.

“We need many more apprenticeships at these levels targeted at young people if we are to establish this route as an alternative to university.”

Making the levy work for those from less well-off backgrounds, living in left behind communities across the country is essential if this government wants to deliver on its ‘levelling up’ agenda

The educational charity, which campaigns for social mobility, has called for a “a re-focusing of the degree apprenticeship programme”.

It questions apprenticeship levy funding for “subsidising senior executives taking MBA-style qualifications” that “largely benefit those who are already highly-paid and well-qualified” – and says those degree apprenticeships must “justify their cost” by demonstrating they are “genuinely levelling up skills for those who need it most.”

The government axed levy funding for MBAs in April. However, the Sutton Trust stops short of suggesting the removal of levy support for “MBA-style” degree apprenticeships, instead advising the government to consider introducing a maximum salary ceiling for levy-funded apprentices.

Social mobility and widening opportunity should be “an explicit criterion” in the government’s review of the apprenticeships levy, adds the charity. Employers should ‘top up’ levy funding for certain categories of apprentice and be required to publish anonymised statistics on the age, level, socio-economic background and salary level of apprentices.

“Making the levy work for those from less well-off backgrounds, living in left behind communities across the country is essential if this government wants to deliver on its ‘levelling up’ agenda,” the report’s conclusion states.

The Trust is also launching its first-ever apprenticeship summer school to widen access to degree apprenticeships.

The report comes alongside YouGov polling that shows the coronavirus crisis has lead to 36% of apprentices being furloughed, 8% made redundant and 17% having had their off-the-job learning suspended.

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