At a conference on degree apprenticeships in December 2019, I sat in a room in London with colleagues from across the sector, hearing the usual criticisms about degree apprenticeships. “They’re stopping opportunities at level 2 and 3” said one colleague. Another mentioned that “SME’s can’t access them” while a third came out with the fabled “universities are just repackaging degrees”.

All of these arguments come from a need to be defensive – of other provision or wider aims. But more than that, they come from a lack of clarity. In meetings, workshops and conferences across the country over the last 5 years, education experts have come together to evaluate and critique the degree apprenticeship model. But it struck me in that environment – how can we measure the success of the programme when we don’t all agree on its aim?

Are degree apprenticeships about productivity, social mobility or skills gaps?

When introduced under the Cameron government, degree apprenticeships were lauded as the way to increase falling productivity levels. Before the detail was known – of the trailblazer process, the Levy or occupation maps – degree apprenticeships were introduced as a way to reignite employer investment in skills training and development for the workforce.

But since then, the message has become muddled. In 2018 Gavin Williamson, as Education Secretary, made a speech which unequivocally linked apprenticeships with the Industrial Strategy, and a way for the UK to meet its future skills gaps. Then, in 2019, the Office for Students published a rallying cry to “make degree apprenticeships a force for social mobility“, noting that the higher the level of the apprenticeships, the lower the percentage of disadvantage learner it attracts.

Apprenticeship starts by IMD QuintileSource: DfE, 2019. IMD 2015 rank.


And this is the problem with different agendas – none are wrong. It is perfectly reasonable to hope that any education initiative will be a holistic solution to multiple issues, being both for the learner and for the economy.

But in the case of degree apprenticeships – and the apprenticeship system as a whole – these competing agendas are reducing our ability to measure success. Meeting different aims will require different actions, and different actions will prompt different criticisms. The absence of clarity is forcing arbitrary, binary battle lines to be drawn: funding for FE vs HE; employer demand vs provider supply; skills needs vs standard approval. There is real danger that in the chaos we are creating a zero-sum game.

Instead, we can look at what different aims mean for criticisms of the system.

Productivity: if degree apprenticeships are about solving the productivity gap, then it removes concerns about one of the most popular standards to date – Senior Leader – which many have likened to a repackaged MBA. A standard which promotes the upskilling of middle-managers within industry, equipping them with the skills to manage others and be innovative leaders, could prove crucial to improving weak productivity. More than that, it would be necessarily for SMEs. Often lauded as the potential saviors of UK productivity levels, SME access to degree apprenticeships which allow for upskilling will be crucial if they are to fulfil this ambition.

Social mobility: if degree apprenticeships should improve pathways to higher education then there must be better balance across different levels. But balance in conjunction with alternative provision, not just with other levels of apprenticeship. Falling starts in apprenticeships are most problematic if that loss isn’t being corrected elsewhere in the system. To understand what is happening at levels 2 and 3, we need to locate the starts in reference to full time study options and the new T level courses as well as degree level apprenticeships. It’s not as simple as saying that starts are falling because there are more degree apprenticeships, and that this is unequivocally bad.

Future skills: if degree apprenticeships need to meet future skills needs then this has to be employer led. Whether that means more higher level apprenticeships, keeping the degree element, spending the Levy or transferring it; an employer led apprenticeship system is a market controlled by supply and demand. Interfering in the market may be a government prerogative, but one which comes at a cost. You cannot ask employers to identify their skills needs and design programmes to meet them – and forcefully charge them the liberty to do so – and then intervene to change supply. Either we have an employer led system to meet the needs of the future workforce, or we don’t.

So, what?

Clarity on which of these ambitions the degree apprenticeship system is supposed to fulfil will better allow businesses to adapt or challenge the criticisms often levied at their approach. Certainly if we look to new Institute Chief Executive Jen Coupland’s comments over the weekend, degree apprenticeships need to combine both social mobility and the post-Brexit skills gaps by creating pathways all the way to the top. How this works in practice – and intersects with employer need – remains unclear. What is clear is that the current situation is in danger of creating a zero-sum game, where all parties are pitted against one another in a system where the rules and the goal are not known. We can only hope – and encourage – that as a new government settles in transparency will be increased and direction offered.

This article is part of a series of NCUB blogs on degree apprenticeships published on National Apprenticeship Week 2020. You can read the other blogs in the series here: