10 August 2023

Tackling dud degrees is only half the battle

By Mark Bremner

Last month the Prime Minister announced that universities offering degree courses with poor graduate employment prospects would see their intake numbers slashed. 

‘Too many young people are being sold a false dream and end up doing a poor-quality course that doesn’t offer the prospect of a decent job at the end of it,’ Rishi Sunak said at the time.

To redress the balance, ministers hope to push the take up of vocational forms of education, particularly apprenticeships. 

While that move is welcome, it’s also long overdue. For nearly a decade, studies have highlighted the misnomer of the ‘graduate premium’. The reality is that a significant proportion of graduates have been sold a lie and are saddled with debt with little prospect of ever repaying it. 

In many cases, apprenticeships offer a more fruitful option to university degrees. They promise higher employment rates and better earnings potential, all without the debt obligations faced by their peers in higher education. 

But apprenticeships are not perfect. Indeed, the Government would do well to match its recent higher education reforms with improvements to the apprenticeship system. It is only by waging a war of reform on two fronts that the Government will deliver the apprenticeships revolution and the associated productivity dividends it seeks and the country needs.

Staying the course

One of the most significant challenges that apprenticeships face is the high dropout rate. Over half (53%) of all apprentices fail to complete their qualification. Compare this to 6.3% of students who drop out of university and apprenticeships begin to lose some of their shine.

While significant numbers of those embarking on a university degree may be better off choosing a vocational route, it is worth little to them if they don’t finish the course.

Thankfully, however, solutions to poor apprenticeship completion rates are at hand.

Low apprenticeship wages are one significant factor. All too often young people are lured away from their apprenticeship for the promise of better earnings in the short-term from elsewhere. On average, apprenticeships offer just £5.28 an hour, while Tesco pays an entry level wage of £10.20-11.50 for those ages 18-20 years old. Wage disparities make apprenticeships significantly less appealing compared to other entry-level positions, particularly during a cost of living crisis.

In some instances, employers ignore their obligation to pay the apprenticeship minimum wage altogether. 

The Government needs to take a more robust approach to ensure compliance with minimum wage laws. There needs to be more stringent adherence checks as well as penalties for those who fail to meet their obligations.

Another issue is that often employers are too lenient in granting leave for their apprentices, while others fail to provide sufficient pastoral care. These factors increase dropout rates when apprentices fail to return to their course. Providing effective support structures and mentorship from employers can help foster positive learning environments. The burden of responsibility falls upon both the employer as well as the apprenticeship provider. 

The importance of flexibility

Flexibility in apprenticeship programs is also crucial. The current 12-month minimum duration acts as a deterrent, preventing many from enrolling and completing their training. Rather than introducing greater rigour to the system, it has led to an unnecessary extension of important but low-paid apprenticeships in areas like hospitality. 

The minimum duration rule is also proving an ineffective way to ensure quality, which was its primary purpose. Some apprenticeship providers have been getting away with putting learners through higher-level standards at an unreasonably rapid pace. This allows them to maximise their short-term income but with detrimental implications for the learner, employer, and the sector.

Instead of the mandatory 12-month minimum duration across all standards, there ought to be a sliding scale approach where the duration differs by level. Doing so would allow for flexibility and advancement at lower levels, while also ensuring the rigour required at higher levels. 

The Prime Minister is right to pursue its crack down on ‘dud degrees’. For too long, too many young people have been pursuing a false promise. Apprenticeships hold enormous potential to offer people a brighter future, but the Government also have an obligation to maximise that potential. Coordinated reform of both higher and further education is the way to deliver this.

Click here to subscribe to our daily briefing – the best pieces from CapX and across the web.

CapX depends on the generosity of its readers. If you value what we do, please consider making a donation.

Mark Bremner is the chief executive of an apprenticeships provider.

Columns are the author's own opinion and do not necessarily reflect the views of CapX.