In recent weeks, there’s been quite a buzz around higher apprenticeships, particularly the new degree level standards that develop high-level management, digital and healthcare practice skills – to name but a few. But can degree apprenticeships really be considered as viable alternatives to traditional university study? Will they make a difference to the UK skills landscape? And what impact will they have on the future?
For a long time now, the university degree has been lauded as the educational standard par excellence – something which is regularly bolstered by data evidencing the university premium (the amount that those with letters after their name can earn compared to those who do not). In 1993 the earnings of a degree-holder were 52% more than someone with no qualifications1, with a figure of £100,000-£150,000 being typically cited as what graduates can expect to earn during their entire career, over and above what their non-graduate peers can expect.2
However, given that university participation rates have significantly increased (from just 3.4% in 1950 to 50% today3), we’re now seeing the earnings gap closing. As early as 2013, reports were suggesting the wage-boost enjoyed by graduates compared to those only qualified to A-Level standard had already fallen by 29% since the 1990s.4
Today, one in three workers now have a degree, up from one in 10 in 19855, but at a much higher personal financial cost since university funding cuts were announced in 2010. It’s difficult to ignore the increasing debt graduates need to incur to pursue degree-level education – something that can take years to pay off.
However, it’s in the interest of employers to ensure that the supply of high-level skills is growing. According to the CBI Education and Skills Survey 2016, more than three quarters of businesses expect to have more job openings for people with higher-level skills over the coming years (compared to just 3 per cent expecting fewer), creating the largest positive net balance (+74%) in recent years.6
That’s why there’s been such a buzz around the new apprenticeship reforms. Degree apprenticeships, launched in 2015, offer apprentices the opportunity to achieve high level skills up to Level 6 and 7 (bachelor’s degrees and master’s degrees) in the specialist areas that employers are looking for, combining study with on-the-job learning.
And it’s not just young people who are expected to seize the opportunity to develop their skills – there’s growing evidence that mature workers are also looking to access high level skills development through degree apprenticeships too. Taking the UK population as a whole, the number of people aged 65 and over will have increased by 50% by 2030.7 In short - we’re living longer; something which is shaping one of the most generationally-diverse talent pools we’ve ever had.
Looked at from an employer’s perspective, what we’re seeing emerge is an interesting proposition for attracting and developing talent.
Through higher apprenticeships, young people are offered the opportunity to get a degree and differentiate themselves by gaining crucial work experience as well as earning money along the way. And older staff get the opportunity to re-train for new careers or upskill to meet the needs of evolving job roles.
And of course the employer benefits too. By utilising higher apprenticeships as a recruitment tool, employers are able to attract the best talent into the organisation – especially when competition for digital and technical skills, for example, is so stiff.
Degree apprenticeships bring business and education together, bridging the gap between academic theory and practical application. For a long time now, employers have complained of a lack of work-readiness and commercial awareness among new graduates – something that prospective employees themselves have found difficult to rectify.
What apprenticeship programmes seek to deliver, is high-level skills that are relevant to the job and sector the employee is working in. If you consider that this adds up to a degree, work experience, a salary and even a new career for the apprentice – it’s a proposition not be underestimated...
One of the most interesting things about the apprenticeship reforms, is the wide-scale societal impact it’s creating already. According to research by the Chartered Management Institute in March 2016, the introduction of degree apprenticeships is causing a dramatic shift in attitudes to apprentices. Once being made aware, over 61% of parents said they would favour their child opting for a degree apprenticeship and going to work over a traditional degree from a mainstream university.8
There’s still work to do in raising awareness of degree apprenticeships, as many parents and school leavers aren’t currently aware of the new approach. However, it’s not difficult to imagine the shift that will occur over the coming years when the true value of degree apprenticeships fully enters the public consciousness.
And in terms of economic value, apprenticeships have independently been verified to benefit the UK economy – to the tune of £34 billion per annum (from aspects including higher wages, business taxes, and better business profits),9 generating £21 back for every £1 invested. Degree apprentices will only increase this impressive ROI number further. In fact, if apprenticeship recruitment continues to occur at the sorts of rates that the UK Government predicts, the national economy stands to gain by £50 billion by 2025 and by £101 billion by 2050.10
It’s clear to see apprenticeships have a genuine three-pronged – personal, economic, societal – role to play. There are already more than 100 job roles covered by degree apprenticeships, from management to engineering, and all the signs are that central funding will be increased to ensure it is higher level apprentices and above that get more priority.
Of course, universities will still have an important educational role to play. Many will actually be delivery partners for degree apprenticeship programmes themselves – but one thing is clear: there are now more routes to obtaining a degree, and developing high-level skills within the context of a working environment is certainly one of the most exciting.
 British Sociological Journal – research by Dr Malcolm Brynin
 Return on Investment of a University Education’, 2012 by IntoUniversity & UNITE
 English apprenticeships: Our 2020 Vision, Department for Business Innovation and Skills & Department for Education, 2015
 CMI – Parents: degree apprenticeships better than Oxbridge
 CEBR research on the benefits of apprenticeships, 2014