Degree apprenticeships create a rare species of child – an economically independent 21-year-old, but as middle class parents discover this, they become harder to access for poor British kids, writes Eliza Filby.
Imagine a family with two daughters, both of university age. One is a creative type and has chosen to study English at a top-tier university in one of the UK’s premier (and expensive) towns. The other daughter has always been a more practical person, loves maths and has set her sights on doing an apprenticeship degree albeit at a less prestigious university whilst living at home. One of them will emerge out of university with minimum £30k debt and no guarantee of a job. The other will graduate with no debt, be paid a decent salary whilst studying and will have employment waiting for her when she finishes.
It’s not a question of which made the better decision, the dilemma rests with the parents: how do they possibly support them equally throughout their lives when it comes to nuptials, housing, babies, even inheritance? How do you do that when one has had such an obvious catapult into early adulthood and the other has not? The English graduate is at a disadvantage for doing everything she was told to do; pass exams and get to a good university. And she will be burdened by student debt that is linked to the base interest rate. In five years, that means a £50k debt would increase to £69,800.
Both these girls are in a hugely privileged position. And let us not forget that there’s always been a huge disparity in outcomes when it comes to tertiary education, but the rise of degree apprenticeships is disrupting the value and cost of higher education.
Degree apprenticeships started in 2015, formed as a way of shaking up tertiary education, creating degree-worthy apprenticeships and training students in critically needed digital skills to plug the much complained-about “skills gap”. The backing of steemed companies such as Rolls Royce and PwC gave them credibility even if they are still not fully appreciated by the educational profession – with 64 per cent of teachers saying they would not recommend it to high achieving students. They are however increasingly endorsed by a much more important constituency: parents and students. In 2021, they made up 43,000 out of 500,000 university places offered, but are now harder to get into than Oxbridge.
Unsurprisingly, they are growing in favour amongst Gen Z who want to avoid debt and desire instant employability. Tough economic conditions have made this generation savvy about money and wary of the promises of education. Many of these apprenticeships are in digital skills, reinforcing their relevance for a generation most exposed to AI bots.
Middle class parents are putting prejudices aside too, knowing that it could save them money and create an economically self-reliant 21-year-old; a rare breed in the 2020s. This is especially attractive for Gen X, who aren’t as rich as Baby Boomers and cannot afford a generation of Boomerang dependents living at home in their 30s.
Even anecdotally, you will probably be aware of the extreme lengths that parents go to to get their children into decent primary schools; move house, cross counties, discover faith. Well, we’re beginning to see similar levels of parental pushing when it comes to degree apprenticeships. I’ve heard of parents indulging in cringey professional networking and LinkedIn-stalking on behalf of their children. Just as private school fees increased and out-priced the middle classes (they have quadrupled in 20 years), so these parents began to infiltrate respectable, cheaper state options. We are seeing a similar pattern with degree apprenticeships to the detriment of those lower down the economic scale.
Degree apprenticeships now make up 26 per cent of all apprenticeships but the number of those from lower economic backgrounds taking up these opportunities has declined. In an odd twist of history, those from poorer backgrounds are now more likely to go to university than to be on these apprenticeships. Worse still, apprenticeship opportunities overall have fallen.
Condemning middle class parents for being too pushy does not solve the problem here. The onus is on companies to ensure that an adequate number of those from lower income households are part of the take up; currently it is only 5 per cent. The government also needs to incentivise more and more businesses (both big and small) to expand these opportunities. In an era of high interest rates, the prospect of university debt isn’t just something that graduates think about when they see their wage packet; it is now front and centre of students’ minds (and their parents’) when they start to apply.