Degree apprenticeships hold limited appeal, survey of sixth formers suggests

A survey conducted by Public First aims to understand the attitudes and values of young people, finding that the plurality want fee caps lowered to £7,500 and minimum grade requirements for degrees

Two-thirds of sixth formers are not interested in pursuing a degree apprenticeship after completing year 13 – with a large majority instead favouring a full-time undergraduate degree as their next step in education, a significant new survey suggests. 

The survey of more than 1,000 sixth formers commissioned by the All-Party Parliamentary Group for Universities (APPGU) suggests that degree apprenticeships lag far behind the traditional full-time degree in terms of attractiveness among young people in every statistical group. 

Just six per cent of the sample from across England had never heard of degree apprenticeships, suggesting awareness of the qualifications is high. Among the 96% that had heard of them, two-thirds said they were not interested in pursuing one, compared to a quarter who said they held some appeal. 

Last week, Michelle Donelan, the minister for higher and further education, said she wanted every university to offer degree apprenticeships

Perhaps worryingly for ministers keen to expand degree apprenticeship provision, students from diverse socioeconomic backgrounds and all parts of the country were equally aware of and uninterested in degree apprenticeships. 

Degree apprenticeships hold limited appeal survey of sixth formers suggests
Daniel Zeichner and Chris Skidmore, co-chairs of the All-Party Parliamentary Group for Universities, said the findings prove ministers should halt some of the mooted reforms of post-18 education and student finance.

The survey by Public First suggests that students, on the whole, support varying fee levels for different subjects and universities and a significant majority back reducing the fee cap to £7,500, the figure mooted by the Augar review of post-18 education and finance. A large majority also support a reduction in interest rates for tuition fee loans. 

Public First found that two-thirds of young people consulted consider university a worthwhile option, even considering the associated high costs and graduate tuition fee loan repayments. The majority of those spoken to do not “trust” this government or future ones “to ensure that the terms and conditions [on which] students took out loans will be fair and consistent for the long-term”. 

Students do not support capping the number of those that can go to university, the survey suggests, but do support introducing minimum entry requirements based on a prescribed number of GCSE and A-level, or equivalent, qualifications. 

Pulling up the drawbridge on students who want to learn through reforms that ultimately reduce student choice risks damaging the life chances of young people from disadvantaged backgrounds
– Chris Skidmore, co-chair of the All-Party Parliamentary Group for Universities

The APPGU, whose secretariat is supplied by Universities UK, commissioned the survey to understand the values and priorities of the next generation of university applicants ahead of the government response to the Augar review. Documents published last week by the Treasury say it anticipates an official plan for post-18 education will be ready in a matter of weeks

A report accompanying the survey urged those ministers busy finetuning the government response to the Augar review not to curb the number of HE places available. It also warns ministers that its findings show free school meal-eligible (FSM) students were particularly keen to study locally: policies that potentially lead to ‘cold spots’ in the country could, they argue, disproportionately affect those least likely to leave home for HE. The survey found that FSM students were four percentage points more likely to say the cost of going to university would affect which institution they apply to. Unlike other socioeconomic groups, FSM students were 18 percentage points more likely to say, “I am not sure whether I can afford to go”. 

The co-chairs of the APPGU – Chris Skidmore and Daniel Zeichner – urged ministers to consider the impact of post-18 education reforms on students. Conservative Mr Skidmore, a former universities minister, said: “Pulling up the drawbridge on students who want to learn through reforms that ultimately reduce student choice risks damaging the life chances of young people from disadvantaged backgrounds and throwing the government’s levelling up strategy into doubt.” 

Labour MP Mr Zeichner said the findings “bust many myths around the attitudes of young people from disadvantaged backgrounds [towards university]”. 

He added: “[F]ar from trying to close down what some describe as ‘low-value’ courses, we should promote student choice and celebrate and support the transformational role that all our universities play.”

Public First asked the sixth formers which metrics the government should use to measure universities’ success – and which student outcomes they prioritised. Securing a job was the most popular of the options, closely followed by whether students are “happy” at university. The third most-valued graduate outcome was the contribution graduates make to national challenges like climate change or healthcare. All three scored significantly higher in the esteems of young people than graduate salaries. The ‘graduate civic contribution’ factor was most popular with women but had even levels of support among different socioeconomic groups. Nearly seven in 10 sixth formers agree that degree courses have different values: medicine, teaching, nursing, engineering, and the three sciences are the highest value to the UK, according to those surveyed, while history, sociology, English, marketing, and modern languages are the lowest value.


Key findings: 

  • Reducing tuition fees to £7,500 a year was the most popular of eight choices for student finance reform given to sixth formers, attracting support from 81% of those surveyed. It was followed by reducing interest rates on loans (71%) and increasing the period students have to repay their loans before the outstanding balance is wiped (19%). 
  • Of the 94% of the 1,000 sixth formers surveyed that had heard of degree apprenticeships, 66% are not interested in one compared to 25% that said they are. FSM students were twice as likely to be unaware of degree apprenticeships as their peers (10% and 5%). For those aware, FSM students were six percentage points less likely to be interested in the qualifications.
  • Fifty-seven per cent of sixth formers support minimum entry requirements for university applicants – and 23% disagree. However, when asked if the government should limit student numbers – just 23% were supportive and 53% opposed. FSM students were 13 percentage points less likely to support minimum grade requirements.
  • Securing a job was the most valuable student outcome, the survey suggests (53%), followed by whether students are happy (51%) and the civic contribution of graduates (44%). Graduate salaries as the fifth most popular of the eight options, attracting support from 30% of those surveyed. 
  • Sixty-seven per cent of students think going to university is worth the expense. 
  • Nearly half (46%) support different fee levels for courses, compared to 35% that disagree. 
  • Cutting interest rates on loans (57%) was the most popular of three options offered to those surveyed for how ministers could make going to university more attractive to young people. Changing the salary level for loan repayments (27%) and extending the loan repayment period at a lower rate (10%) were less popular. 
  • Forty-six per cent do not trust this government or future ones “to ensure that the terms and conditions [on which] students took out loans will be fair and consistent for the long-term” – compared to 20% that do. 
  • Seven in 10 (69%) support contextual offers for students from poorer areas or lower-performing schools or colleges. Just 13% disagree. 
  • FSM students were significantly more likely to say the ability to study close to home was an important factor when deciding whether to pursue HE (47% compared to 31%). 

Mr Skidmore said: “These findings demonstrate that young people overwhelmingly wish to have the opportunity to study at university and achieve a degree – not simply to achieve a better job or salary, but to fulfil their potential and become a better educated and skilled individual.

“With demand for university places at record levels, we must not place a cap on aspiration by crudely attempting to dictate to the next generation where and what they can and cannot study.

“Pulling up the drawbridge on students who want to learn through reforms that ultimately reduce student choice risks damaging the life chances of young people from disadvantaged backgrounds and throwing the government’s levelling up strategy into doubt. It is time that policy makers work with and not against the aspirations and ambitions of those who wish to make a better life for themselves.”

Mr Zeichner MP said: “This research busts many myths around the attitudes of young people from disadvantaged backgrounds – they really get the difference that going to university will make to their lives, they see it as a game-changer. They understand that it is expensive, but they can see the benefits. So, far from trying to close down what some describe as ‘low-value’ courses, we should promote student choice and celebrate and support the transformational role that all our universities play. Policy-makers need to catch up with those on the ground who actually know what it’s like to be left behind.”


Read more: More disadvantaged students “aiming high” for 2022, says Ucas

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