Should universities be afraid of apprenticeships?

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It’s that time of year again. Fresh-faced undergraduates (almost half a million of them at time of writing) have bid farewell to mum and dad, packed up their lives and I am sure, by now, tested their liver capacity and learned how to cook something for themselves, (yes, cereal counts!).

As higher education continues to be the choice for young people leaving school, it is quite clear that the environment outside of the lecture theatres and laboratories is changing. The number of graduate level positions has shrunk by 8% in the last year, bucking the trend from the last four years. The government have committed to a target of 3 million students starting apprenticeships over the course of this parliament (by 2020), and measures they have taken have prompted many companies to raise their game and improve their offering to students who would rather not go to university. 

All this is in light of changing perceptions around the attractiveness of university; increasing tuition fees and removal of maintenance grants are just two steps the government have taken that make the university proposition appear less attractive to some, particularly those from less privileged backgrounds. 

In light of these recent developments, one might fear for universities and, in particular, their market shares. If three million students do flood to apprenticeships by 2020, given that there are 366,000 students currently in those positions, this leaves a huge number to fill over the next few years – many of whom would presumably otherwise have gone to university.

But where there is challenge, there is opportunity, and like any business, universities must respond to the challenging market conditions that they are likely to face in the next few years. This seems particularly relevant given the recent sharp increase in tuition fees. Universities are increasingly under pressure to ensure that their students receive ‘added value’, and the challenging conditions should force them to look at their overall offering. This should include careers advice, opportunities to speak to employers, and flexible courses that allow for apprenticeships and placement years. 

Universities have clearly acknowledged this; ‘sandwich courses’ used to be rarely offered by institutions that would pride themselves on their academic offering. This is changing, and should continue to change as universities shake off complacency and review the quality of their overall offering to prospective students. With more young people entering professional environments at an early stage in their career, students who leave university unprepared to enter these environments will find it increasingly difficult to stand out, with or without a degree. 

As well as this, there are many opportunities to universities to benefit directly from the increasing number of students who begin higher apprenticeships. Often, these apprenticeships are taken in conjunction with some kind of academic course – for example higher apprentices at PwC learn on the job, and study for a degree at the same time at one of 4 universities. PwC argue this gives students the ‘best of both worlds’, by allowing them to have the university experience with the benefit of a job offer after graduating. 

Ironically, PwC acknowledging that student often value the ‘university experience’ should serve as a source of reassurance for universities. There will be thousands of students who continue in education because they do not feel ready to enter work life. The appeal of university life should not be estimated, and no number of apprenticeship opportunities will change this. This ranges from the opportunities to learn and research in academic environments, to being able to go out on a Wednesday night with your housemates; there are many facets to studying at university that simply cannot be replicated by traditional apprenticeships – indeed in analysis of Class Career sessions between employers and students, students often refer to the university life, asking if apprentices feel they are missing out on that aspect.

All this suggests that it is in both the universities and employers interests to forge links. This gives universities the opportunity to encourage high calibre students to study at their institution, and ensures that employers are giving their apprentices a high quality education and the ‘student experience’ that is so appealing. 

We often do not think about universities as a business the same way we might think of retail companies or financial institutions, but the basic premise is the same. Threats and opportunities always exist and the better quality institutions who are responsive and recognise the opportunities that are presented will flourish. Most importantly for consumers, as in any sector, increased competition should lead to more choice and a better overall offering.

Our thoughts? 

There is no need for universities to fear apprenticeships, but it should begin to shake off the complacency that has crept into parts of the sector, which is a good thing for all concerned.

A special thanks to Tom Kilbey, Assistant Manager at Lloyds Banking Group for this blog post.