Apprenticeships are a unique type of qualification.  

Students are employed in a job while also studying, giving them first-hand experience in the workplace alongside classroom-based learning.  

In recent years, apprenticeships, particularly those at a higher level (level 4 or above), have gained significant recognition and are increasingly seen as a complementary and valuable education route, alongside the three-year academic degree.  

Higher and Degree Apprenticeships, delivered by higher education providers (HEPs), commonly educate students to levels 4 and 5 (equivalent to a foundation degree level), and sometimes levels 6 and 7 (traditional Degree and Master’s Degree levels). Exposing students to workplaces and teaching them practical and technical workplace skills in emerging sectors and industries, this route is highly valued by certain employers. 

Key apprenticeship facts: 

  • Since May 2015, there have been more than three million students starting an apprenticeship in England.  
  • Data from 2022/23 shows that 42,060 students started a Higher Apprenticeship between August to October in 2022, up 10% from the same period in 2021/22. 
  • Conversely, apprenticeships in lower-level qualifications (the equivalent to A Levels and below) have seen a drop since 2015/16. The number of students progressing through the intermediate apprenticeships route – Level 2 – have reduced dramatically. Intermediate apprenticeships’ starts decreased by 69% (to 91,520), participation decreased by 66% (to 175,420) and achievements decreased by 77% (to 37,270).  

Filling the ‘missing middle’ 

Each year, the UK educates students through academic degree pathways to levels 6 and 7 at a similar rate to that of other OECD countries. This provides a continuous and vital talent pipeline for employers. 

However, we fall behind in the numbers of students educated to levels 4 and 5; just 4% of 25-year olds hold a level 4 or 5 certificate as their highest qualification level – the level reached in the Higher Apprenticeship.  

While trends show fewer students are starting and completing the lower-level apprenticeship qualifications, student numbers are increasing in the Higher Apprenticeships route, educating students to levels 4 and 5. This could be key to filling the UK’s missing middle issue.  

Considering the breadth of the skills gaps across the UK, and in response to growing evidence showing half of technical and high-paid roles require qualification only up to level 5, there is a clear opportunity to consider the role of HEP-delivered Higher Apprenticeships in delivering our national skills plans. 

Continuing to develop Higher Apprenticeship pathways, and promoting these to the right students, could help deliver the technical skills needed to power the UK’s future economy, alongside a continued focus on high quality undergraduate and postgraduate degree qualifications. Attracting those who study a technical level 3 qualification, such as a BTEC, T-level or Advanced Apprenticeship, into HE-delivered level 4 and 5 technical education could equip nearly 800,000 students every year with the higher-level technical and practical skills that businesses across a range of industries require to increase productivity and grow. 

In order to do so, this week we’re calling for the Government to celebrate these technical education routes and shine a light on the opportunities they lead to.  

Questions over the Apprenticeship Levy’s flexibility  

Whilst the Apprenticeship route supports students from a range of backgrounds into rewarding roles, there has been much discussion over funding for the route.  

Research shows that more than seven million workers could be under-skilled for their roles by 2030. At a time of unprecedented evolution of workforce skills requirements, it is vital that businesses dedicate resource to Continuing Professional Development (CPD) to transition the existing workforce into one fit for the future. However, businesses have raised concerns over the flexibility of the Levy, which can absorb or eat into staff CPD budgets. 

Unspent Apprenticeship Levy funds raised from businesses are reabsorbed by the Treasury. Between 2019 and March 2022, more than £3.3 billion of funds were not spent and were ultimately returned to the Government, according to the London Progression Collaboration. This means that businesses are missing out on the equivalent of £1.1 billion a year that they could spend on reskilling their staff. 

NCUB will consult with members on the role of the Apprenticeship Levy, impact and staff CPD implications in 2023.