Apprenticeships vs university: where we went wrong

Simon Hunt

September 30, 2018

I was once an apprentice. Intrigued – or duped – by the attractive prospect of skipping university and heading straight into work, I decided that the new apprenticeship schemes I had heard about in the media would be worth a try. So, I made some applications and ended up working for two years at one of the big four accountancy firms under an approved apprenticeship training contract. At the end of the contract, however, I was ready to resign and head to university as originally planned, and here’s why.

First, companies can easily take advantage of apprenticeship schemes. In the school-leaver apprenticeship scheme that I joined, while most of us were – as would be expected – people who had just left school, perhaps a quarter to a third had applied in their mid-twenties, after having finished a university degree and worked elsewhere.

These people were not “school leavers” in any meaningful sense of the word. Indeed, the school-leaver apprenticeship scheme was simply a backdoor for graduates to get into top firms without having to jump through as many hoops in their application, and a back door for employers to get apprenticeship subsidies by paying some graduates smaller salaries than others for doing the same work.

Second, it’s questionable whether employers actually value apprentices, or whether they are just taking them on to avoid financial penalties. A recent Open University report surveying 750 SME leaders found that only one in five would agree that “apprentices are more engaged than other members of staff”, and only one in six would agree that “apprentices are more productive than other members of staff”.

There remains a stigma associated with deciding to join an apprenticeship scheme. As a school leaver, I often felt that my superiors assumed me to be much less intelligent than many of my graduate counterparts, simply for choosing not to go to university. I was serially patronised during my two years and my views were not taken half as seriously as those of graduates. When I once told my manager I felt that one of my superiors was not treating me fairly, I was told that “I’m not at school anymore” and that it was not appropriate for me to report these concerns. I was treated like a pupil reporting a classmate to the teacher; no-one likes a snitch. 

Third, apprenticeships are failing to prepare young people for a good career. Unlike graduates, who are able to move between high-skilled jobs with relative ease, apprentices in graduate-dominated industries lack the qualifications to have the same level of labour mobility (recruitment agencies in the City will not give you a call if they know you are, or were, an apprentice).

Promotion opportunities in the workplace are also harder to come by. My graduate colleagues at work were promoted at a much faster rate than I was, and I was not aware of a single managerial position in my team or elsewhere that was occupied by an apprentice recruit. Apprentices do the same work as graduates, but they get paid less, receive fewer promotions, and they can’t leave. This is hardly setting young people up for a life of prosperity.

Fourth, the apprenticeship regime is inflexible. The Manufacturers Association (EEF) reports that “there are a myriad of funding rules and contracts restricting on what, on who and when funds can be spent”. This level of inflexibility is highly unsuited to a fast-changing world, and the dynamic, adaptable workforce which must come with it. Yet companies who opt for anything other than a qualifying apprenticeship are financially penalised for not falling in line with levy relief requirements.

Fifth, the quality of apprentice training is diluted to meet the levy requirement that at least 20 per cent of apprentice time is spent off the job. My training contract required that I spend one day a month away from work writing essays on being in the workplace, which included a two-thousand word essay on “how to organise a meeting”, one on “how to work within a team”, and one on “how to meet project deadlines”, all of which was a complete waste of time (if you don’t know how to organise a meeting, should you really be working in a professional environment?). But I doubt that this is a unique case: there are probably hundreds of thousands of apprentices across the UK needlessly wasting time on pointless essays just so their employers can sign off on their apprentice levy exemptions.

Now, there are plenty of industries – manufacturing is perhaps the best example – in which the training of apprentices is highly pertinent for the development of the requisite skills for the job. But it is precisely these industries that have seen apprentice numbers falling – all thanks to the levy. Data published earlier this month suggested that quarterly apprentice starts have fallen, not risen, since the introduction of the apprenticeship levy. And the EEF reports that “there were instances where manufacturers were prepared to increase the number of apprenticeships they offered, but instead have either not done so, or had to delay or cancel those apprenticeships specifically because of the apprenticeship levy”.

Aside from manufacturing, the apprenticeship levy – being the blunt educational tool that it is – creates apprentices where they are not needed and where they shouldn’t exist. And that’s not just bad for businesses, it’s bad for the apprentices, who are shoe-horned into low-paid jobs with little to no prospects.

Frankly, the government should stop forcing large corporations to provide the necessary skills to young people that the state education system has failed to deliver. Instead, it should focus on building an education programme fit for the 21st century, in which all young people are educated to a high enough standard that they don’t subsequently spend years writing essays on “how to organise a meeting”.


Written by Simon Hunt

Simon Hunt is an intern at the Taxpayers' Alliance and a student at Oxford University.


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