Are apprenticeships a real alternative to university?

by Martin Allen and Patrick Ainley

Schools have been criticised by government ministers and Ofsted for not doing enough to promote apprenticeships, but do they serve as a real alternative to university? Our research shows that most apprenticeships are low-skilled and ‘dead-end’ and don’t guarantee employment after completion.

There are of course some very good schemes that lead to well-paid skilled jobs, but these are massively over-subscribed, with BT and Rolls Royce apprenticeships attracting more applicants per place than Oxford engineering degrees. The employment areas where apprenticeships are more likely to be available are in routine office work, health and social care, or retail. Engineering apprenticeships are still in short-supply and in 2013/14 there were under 15 000 starts in the construction industry. As a result, overall apprenticeship vacancies are still well short of the number of applicants.

Though over 2 million apprenticeships have been created since 2010, the majority have been filled by adults, with many examples of existing staff being reclassified as ‘apprentices’ so that employers can access training funding. Two-thirds of apprenticeship starts are at level 2 – equivalent to GCSE, a level to which most people are already qualified. They generally only last a year and in most cases provide no employment guarantees or no opportunity to progress to a higher level.

Things are very different in Germany, for example, where an apprenticeship still provides a ‘licence to practise’ an occupation. There, as part of a ‘social partnership’ between employers and government, over 60% of young people start apprenticeships and 90% of these enter employment. In this country an apprenticeship is still, in most cases, just a short-term job.

There have been some changes. Two thirds of last year’s starts were by people under 24, though only a quarter of these (120,000) are under 19. More young people are now starting Advanced level schemes, even if numbers are small (just 35 000 starts in 2013/14) compared to those enrolling on A-level or other courses in full-time education. But there are still only around 15 000 Higher Level apprenticeships currently operating, some of which do include attending some form of higher education, and only a very small minority of these are started by school leavers.

Until now also, the ‘training’ of apprentices has been carried out by private providers who then claim government funding. All training costs for those under 19 are reclaimable, with up to 50% of those who are older, while new employers can receive a £1500 grant for taking on an apprentice. Unlike in other European countries however, where some form of general education is provided (in Germany, apprentices attend college courses), apprentice training continues to be restricted to narrow workplace-based National Vocational Qualifications (NVQs), with Functional Skills also included for those without GCSE maths and English. Surveys have shown that training companies have been the driving force behind apprenticeship recruitment.

The Coalition has been piloting new apprenticeship specifications which are designed by employers and can include a variety of qualifications. It also wants to make employers directly responsible for apprenticeship recruitment and training, according to ‘need’. Ironically this could result in an overall decline in apprenticeship numbers, which, under the present system, fell last year for the first time. Rather than schools not promoting apprenticeships or failing to liaise with local employers, we argue that the post-crash economy is creating more low-skilled rather than high-skilled jobs, so it’s questionable whether employers really want apprentices – and that’s the reason most don’t offer them!

David Cameron has promised three million more in the next Parliament, while Labour wants as many apprentices as university students. Neither of these will happen without work training being linked to a more general industrial strategy, but neither Cameron nor Miliband are offering one. As a result, despite the fees and not enough ‘graduate jobs’, school leavers will continue to apply for university in their thousands to improve their chances of getting even ‘semi-professional’ employment.

Further reading

Martin Allen and Patrick Ainley: Another Great Training Robbery or a Real Alternative for Young People? Apprenticeships at the start of the Twenty First Century. Downloadable from

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