Improving access to degree apprenticeships for disadvantaged students a priority, skills minister says

Keegan said access needed to improve but that universities did not need incentives to create degree apprenticeships

The skills minister has told MPs that she does not think the government should directly intervene to increase the number of degree apprenticeships in universities, arguing it should instead focus its attention on employers and improving access for disadvantaged students.

Gillian Keegan – the minister responsible for further education, apprenticeships and adult education – told members of the Education Select Committee that she thought employers had “no problem at all” working with universities. She pointed to the growing numbers of new starters as evidence the programmes were embedding into higher education – but said the government was proactively considering how to improve geographic availability and access for disadvantaged students.

Keegan said she saw “no issue to resolve of universities working with employers to put [degree apprenticeships] together”.

The minister said she was encouraged by the growth in new degree apprentices – up from 19,100 new starters in 2019/20 to 22,800 in 2020/21 – and added that “there is no block in the system, I don’t believe, for universities to work with employers to develop degree apprenticeships”.

The government hopes to encourage more business and employers to take onus for co-creating higher technical qualifications, she said – but those that do are “not having a problem finding somebody to work with them, there is no problem at all”.

Committee chair Robert Halfon – himself a former skills minister under Theresa May – asked Keegan if the Department for Education was considering policy levers to increase course places.

Quoting figures from the Centre for Social Justice, Halfon said the government should tackle the problem that individuals under the age of 19 from the most disadvantaged backgrounds are five times less likely to undertake a degree-level apprenticeship than those in the most advantaged areas.

We’re fearful that […] people who would have gone to university anyway, will just choose that route and squeeze out the people like me, sat in a comprehensive school at 16 with nowhere to go
– Gillian Keegan, skills minister

Keegan said that numerous public sector professions – including nursing and policing – had opened to degree apprentices – but conceded more government work was needed to support more small- and medium-sized private sector enterprises (SMEs) to join them.

The skills minister said that, in her view, the government did not need to pursue a “targeted measure” to incentivise universities to develop degree apprenticeships with employers. She added: “There is [work needed] in terms of improving access to them, making sure people are aware of them and making them available in their area.”

The minister – who is the only skills minister to have begun their career as an apprentice – said she was “fearful” that “very good” degree apprenticeships could become a victim of success and not broaden higher education participation. “We’re fearful that […] people who would have gone to university anyway, will just choose that route and squeeze out the people like me, sat in a comprehensive school at 16 with nowhere to go,” she explained.

Halfon challenged Keegan to explain why the Department for Education had not reinstated the Degree Apprenticeship Development Fund (DADF) to “rocket boost degree apprenticeships”, which grew last year but remain a tiny fraction of level 6 provision. The £4.5-million project, which ran from 2016 to 2019, had “quite a big impact by working with universities to create new courses”, Halfon said.

Keegan said the government’s emphasis was not on universities but employers. “It’s not really about the universities coming up with a degree apprenticeship: it’s about the employers with universities coming up with something that meets their needs,” she told the committee.

Halfon complained that a study by Universities UK revealed that 81% of students in years 10 and 12 knew nothing or little about degree apprenticeships – and argued universities should do more to advertise them. He stated it was “unacceptable” that of the 100 universities on the register of apprenticeship training providers, only 59 mentioned apprentices in their most recent access and participation plans.

He suggested the government needed a “carrot and stick” approach, recommending that the Office for Students set new targets and link future university funding conditional on expanding places.

“I’m not really a big fan of intervening in different things,” Keegan retorted. “Quite often, we get unintended consequences when the government intervenes in various bits of this system.” Instead, she said, the government wanted to support a system that grew without continued government stimulus.

She continued: “This is about getting a system that transforms technical education in this country, that makes sure everybody’s aware of it, and that makes sure it’s accessible to everybody, wherever they are in the country, whatever their background, whatever their ethnicity, whatever their life journey is.”

Keegan asserted that the Department for Education’s ‘flexi-job apprenticeships’ pilots sought to target sectors, like the creative industries, that previously found it difficult to develop higher technical training. A culture of subcontractors, freelancing, self-employed specialists and project-based work meant “apprenticeships have never been easy to access for those industries”.

Read more: Lifetime skills guarantee ‘not guaranteed’ for some of those who need it most, says Labour

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