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Degree or not to Degree, that is the question.

A discussion of the options for school leavers in light of Apprenticeship reforms.


Many will be aware of the apprenticeship reform proposed in the 2012 Richard Review that is due for complete roll out by 2020. The noise surrounding the reforms has been to a large extent, based around the apprenticeship levy which will see some companies charged 0.5% of their payroll bill. This however, is just the cornerstone of the impact this will have for business and for the economy more widely.

The reform itself is made up of a number of components of change such as; the new company levy, a move to end point assessment and the scope of this comment, the roll out of a Degree Apprenticeship. Many, including those in the industry, are sifting through periodicals and are beginning to understand what a degree apprenticeship means for businesses within England. Yet, by no means is the idea of a Degree Apprenticeship new. Aspects of this can be found in the TVET system in Germany, in Austria and also the education system of the Netherlands. However, the attitude from the British government toward this form of apprenticeship is new, and will now give school leavers increased avenues in to careers.

So what is a degree apprenticeship and what sectors are delivering them?

On announcing the degree apprenticeship in 2015, Vince Cable, former business secretary, described it as ‘bring[ing] together the very best of higher and vocational education, and allow[ing] apprentices to achieve a full bachelor’s or master’s degree, whilst training on the job’. An apprentice on this type of programme will typically spend part of their time on site at their organisation receiving practical training. The other part of their time will be spent at university studying workplace skill and academic practice to support in their role. The apprentice will gain both a degree and work experience. Some organisations have opted for a front-loaded approach, whereby learners will spend their first month in the university setting, to gain knowledge, before their practical application.

In terms of the benefits of a degree apprenticeship, there are perhaps 3 main draws.

One is the cost. As the degree is an apprenticeship, the fees which would typically be paid by a student will instead be paid by the employer. With the increase in university fees in recent years, this is an obvious draw for school leavers who may be put off by a minimum of £9,000 per year charge.

Secondly, the level of technical knowledge gained as part of an apprenticeship is attractive. There is no doubt that on the job training provides a great context for learning.   This blended approach ‘connects theories of knowing to practical doing.’ With Thomas Jaarsma, author of ‘The Role of Materiality in Apprenticeships,’ commenting that, ‘the closer to the engine, the closer to mastery’. The very nature of ‘on the job training’ means that learners understand the context, and therefore the importance of what they are being taught. This immediate application of theory is known to support long term retention of knowledge.

The third draw? A clear structured route in to a future career. Of course, we do hear of instances where employers use apprentices to fill short term vacancies, however for the main, and the central purpose of an apprenticeship,

is to provide career opportunities. Selena Chan describes an apprenticeship as ‘a rite of passage; a form of induction into working life and adult responsibilities’. The allure for students, who’s days have been structured by the education system from age four, is clear. Apprentices are given, in the main, a focus on a specific role, with a specific route to get there. For some, this structure is relished.

However, with more than 500,000 students taking up the offer of a place on a traditional university course for September 2016, attending university continues to be a popular choice for school leavers. Throughout the 80’s and 90’s the popularity of the university grew. A mixture of public policy, the blending of polytechnics and improved  student funding resulted in an increase to almost 1/3 of the those eligible, attending university. Universities have now seen a rise of 16,800 year on year for applicants. The reason, university study offers a great opportunity to delve into your passion. The variety  of choice as well as the freedom of study, for most courses, make this a very appealing prospect. It is this element of choice that creates the environment which allows students to identify their individual learning needs. Unlike an apprenticeship, where content is formed by the needs of the employer, university course content can be chosen year on year by the learner themselves. As part of this choice, many courses now offer a year in industry, where students will work on site with an employer within their chosen sector.  Students on university courses, therefore, have the option to partake in the blended learning approach that is at the core of an apprenticeship.

The aforementioned choice attributed with university does not end with choosing course content. Graduates in humanities for example, have been known to go into teaching, writing, museum curator and even with MI5. Currently, ‘60% of the UK’s leaders have humanities, arts or social science degrees’ demonstrating the breadth of employment opportunities after the degree is complete. The choice post-apprenticeship is far more narrow, with learners typically going in to the profession they have trained in. Such options are only enhanced by the social aspect and networking opportunities of the university environment. Much has been written about the social element of university life, however, it does serve its place, particularly for networking and relationship building. University provides the perfect platform for both formal and informal networking events, the employment opportunities of which, cannot be overstated.

It is also worth noting, that in order to complete a degree apprenticeship the student will need to secure employment with an organisation who is delivering a degree apprenticeship. Degree apprenticeships are a partnership between a university institution and an employer. Currently there are 18 universities around the UK offering degree apprenticeships in a range of areas from accountancy to software engineering. Unlike the traditional degree process, applicants apply directly to the employer and not to the university. Intake numbers therefore are far more reduced than for that of a typical degree subject.

With this in mind, it is less of a discussion of ‘degree or not to degree’, but more of a discussion about what type of study. As with any degree selection process, the motivation should be based on interest and passion. The introduction of a degree apprenticeship can only be a positive thing for our education system. Increasing the post-16 education options will encourage more learners to select an education pathway, and ultimately a career, based on their interest, and not on what is available at the time. This may seem like a pipe dream. However, with the target of 3 million apprenticeships by 2020, and degree apprenticeships in more sectors than ever before, coupled with the course options already offered by universities, a higher education system based around choice, and not just need, looks increasingly possible.


  • Creating and Supporting Expansive Apprenticeships: A Guide for Employers, Training Providers and Colleges of Further Education, national apprenticeship service, 2010
  • Remaking apprenticeships, city and guilds, 2015
  • English apprenticeships: our 2020 vision, 2015
  • Apprentice bakers: belonging to a workplace, becoming and being, Selena Chan, 2013
  • The revolution in England’s Universities 1980-2000, Peter Maitlis


To find out more about how Gradvert can help you with your own apprenticeship agenda call us on 0191 607 0225 or email our apprentice team at

Take a look at our dedicated apprentice section at

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