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Degree apprenticeships could help improve social mobility

Despite a digital skills crisis, and a need to hire and upskill fast, we continue to present school leavers with a binary choice when it comes to continuing their learning – go to university or take an apprenticeship.

With student loan interest rates set to rise from 4.5% to 12% this autumn, we run the very real risk that some potential university students, particularly those from disadvantaged backgrounds concerned about the cost and length of repayments, will choose to drop out of the education system.

Apprenticeships may also struggle to attract high-calibre candidates.

Young people, influenced by their elders, are often funnelled into the traditional higher education route because of a perceived lack of equitable alternatives, with apprenticeships often portrayed as a ‘second-class’ option.

But there is a potential solution staring us in the face – degree apprenticeships.

Creating an early-talent pipeline:

Most graduates would have preferred apprenticeships to university

Building a sustainable talent pipeline

Case study: Creating a tech talent pipeline at Capgemini

Degree apprenticeships offer learners the opportunity to study all the way up to an accredited Masters degree provided by top universities.

Apprentices bypass tuition fee debt and earn a salary as they learn, making it a far more accessible option for those from disadvantaged backgrounds. 

It also offers the opportunity to learn a new skillset that can be directly applied in a workplace.  

Available in key disciplines including cyber security, digital user experience and digital technology degree apprenticeships teach vital in-demand skills in a way that’s sympathetic to employers’ needs, making them more productive when they enter the workplace.

But there is a problem with the visibility and uptake of degree apprenticeships. Despite initial rapid growth, there just isn’t enough knowledge of the and their benefits.

Between 2018 and 2020, uptake of degree apprenticeships only increased by 3.2%. However, not enough young people are taking them.

In 2020/21, there were 14 times more degree apprenticeships taken up by over 25s than under 19s.

We must make degree apprenticeships more visible as a pathway for school leavers.

They might not be right for everyone, but young people should have access to information on all the options open to them to make a choice that is right.

According to research, visibility is key in helping young people make decisions about their future.

Apprentices aged 16-24 surveyed by the Sutton Trust said better information and support ahead of starting apprenticeships may have convinced their peers to consider it.

Meanwhile, businesses need to do more to harness the power of degree apprenticeships to bring new talent into the workforce.

The Sutton Trust research also concludes that apprenticeship opportunities for young people continue to decline as employers choose instead to give those opportunities to existing employees or those over the age of 25.

In fact, research from QA shows that overall young people hold misperceptions about the requirements for a career in technology, 60% of 16 to 24-year-olds believe you need a degree to start a career in tech and only 10% of 16 to 24-year-olds realise you can earn an average salary of £75k in tech.

Degree apprenticeships are a powerful way to keep young people in education while allowing them to practically apply their learnings to the workplace, nurturing talent and developing the skills – especially those in technology and digital – that are increasingly essential to long-term business success.

As businesses consider changing hiring practices to target school leavers to help close the technology skills gap faster, greater awareness of degree apprenticeships and their benefits is paramount to ensure young people have the right choices based on their needs.

Greater visibility and access would help address the digital skills crisis while supporting social mobility, helping those facing the greatest barriers to higher education achieve a degree without accumulating the associated debt.

If you need to bring net new talent into your business to tackle a tech or digital skills gap, degree apprenticeships could be an important part of the solution.


Natasha Traynor is director for apprenticeships at QA