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Why apprenticeships went degree-level

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According to workforce researchers, the UK is suffering from acute skills shortages in key areas, particularly Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (the so-called STEM subjects) – shortages that, if left unchecked, could hamper the UK’s global competitiveness. In its most recent assessment of skills shortages facing the economy, the UK Commission for Employment & Skills (UKCES) found 19% of employers now have at least one unfilled skills-shortage-created vacancy – up from 15% the last time the survey was done in 2013. Overall it found 22% of all job vacancies are down to a skills shortage.1

Raising the skills level that an apprenticeship could return was crucial if people (in particular school leavers) were going to be persuaded to take this path instead of traditional further education. So, the UK Government launched higher apprenticeships (those providing skills up to levels 4 and 5) in 2009-10.

However, the real enhancement of the pathway came in 2015, when degree apprenticeships were launched. Through degree apprenticeship programmes, learners can now achieve a Level 6 or 7 qualification (gaining a full bachelor’s or master’s degree), while working and earning money at the same time.

Between 2010-2015, 2.1 million apprenticeships were created, but for this parliament, the UK Government has set a target of having 3 million apprenticeship starts – with as many of these as possible being degree apprentices.

Data shows the UK Government is on track to meet this – and it now requires that 2.3% of all new workers joining public sector bodies are apprentices. But without doubt, meeting this ambitious target will be boosted by the existence of the degree apprenticeship. Employees young and old will now have the opportunity to be educated to degree level without incurring the debt of tuition. Not only that, degree apprenticeships enable people to obtain the high-level skills that are relevant to employers’ needs.

What are the skill levels?

In the UK, skills are assessed against levels, which are set according to qualification frameworks. The levels are equivalent to:

  • Level 1-2 = GCSE
  • Level 3-4 = A level
  • Level 5 = HND, Foundation degree
  • Level 6 = Bachelor’s degree
  • Level 7 = Master’s degree
  • Level 8 = Doctorate