Ucas data chief hails ‘staggering’ rise in apprenticeships interest

John Cope said that almost half of those opening Ucas accounts expressed an interest in apprenticeships, up 123% on the previous year

The rapid rise in the number of people expressing an interest in apprenticeships is “nothing short of staggering,” according to John Cope, director of strategy, policy and public affairs at Ucas.

He was pointing to the fact that, of the 750,000 people over the last six months who have set up a Ucas account ready for next year, 342,000 said they were interested in an apprenticeship; a rise of 123% on the previous year.

“It feels – and I say this knowing the hostage to fortune I’m creating – like we’ve reached a genuine tipping point where apprenticeships are reaching parity,” he wrote in a blog published by the Higher Education Policy Institute.

Cope also noted that searches for apprenticeships on the Ucas website topped two million this year, up 45%.

The sharp rise echoes figures published last month by the Office for National Statistics, showing a 27% increase in higher apprenticeship starts in the first quarter of the 2021-22 academic year, compared to the previous year.

Three main reasons are cited by Cope for the sudden change:

  • The “far from perfect” apprenticeship levy has delivered stable and increased funding for apprenticeships, around £3 bn annually
  • The Institute for Apprenticeships and Technical Education has engaged a record number of employers in securing “rigorous, employer-led standards, so apprenticeships lead to great jobs”
  • A significant cultural shift in how apprenticeships are perceived; gone is the “stubborn view that apprenticeships are for other people’s children”

On top of that, three other factors – the skills and post-16 education bill currently going through parliament, the lifelong loan entitlement coming into place in 2025, and the rollout of T-levels – should ensure that the change is not a temporary one.

“The good news doesn’t stop there,” added Cope. “Top employers like Jaguar Land Rover, Vodafone, Rolls Royce, Sky, and Keir Group are all selling themselves to would-be apprentices through [Ucas’] new employer profiles.

“While the vast majority of the UK economy is small and medium size employers, seeing big household names on UCAS makes apprenticeship snobbery harder and harder to maintain.”

But yet. In a survey quoted by Cope, 76% associated the word ‘prestigious’ with a degree, but only 4% did so for apprenticeships.

And while the universities minister said in October 2021 that she wanted every university to offer degree apprenticeships, two-thirds of sixth formers surveyed that the same month said they were uninterested in pursuing the qualification.

In part, according to Cope, this might be attributed to a third of students not receiving any careers information about apprenticeships, despite it being a legal requirement in England to do so.

Either way, he noted, the dramatic population rise in 18-year-olds between now and the end of the decade means that it is going to take a sustained effort to ensure that demand for apprenticeships does not outstrip supply.

It feels like we’ve reached a genuine tipping point where apprenticeships are reaching parity – John Cope, Ucas

“Our current forecast is for one million applications through UCAS in 2026, compared to just over 700,000 in 2021 – an enormous leap. With the median size of a university around the 15,000 mark, that jump of 300,000 between now and 2026 means we’ll need new universities in the next couple of years, or for current institutions to dramatically upscale.

“Apprenticeships, especially in smaller firms which the UK economy is predominantly made up of, will also need to scale expand to meet demand – there are around 5,000 apprenticeship opportunities on UCAS.com this month.

“The gap becomes even more stark when looking at English 18-year-olds. Over 18% of those applying for an undergraduate degree in 2021 said they were simultaneously applying for a degree apprenticeship. That’s around 50,000 students. Compare that to just 3,600 apprentices (aged 19 or younger) who started a higher or degree level apprenticeships in 2020 – 21. It’s an incredible gulf.”

Besides Ucas investing in its own apprenticeship and undergraduate services, Cope called for measures including an “inevitable” review of the apprenticeship levy; incentives for employers to increase supply; ensuring that the lifelong loan entitlement dovetails with the rest of the system; and requiring apprenticeships to be listed with Ucas.

“We can be confident that demand for higher education and apprenticeships will only increase in the coming years,” he concluded.

“How we meet that demand, and pay for it, remains an open question.”

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