Ucas: We want to be a one-stop shop for apprenticeships

To deliver a world-class skills system in the UK, there must be a level playing field in pathways, says Ucas' John Cope
25th January 2021, 1:35pm
John Cope


Ucas: We want to be a one-stop shop for apprenticeships

Apprenticeships: Why Don’t All Employers See The Value?

Are you really even the education secretary until you've set out a game-changing plan for skills and promised a German-style system? The answer, for at least a century, has been no. 

Take the 1884 Royal Commission on technical instruction: "commissioners cannot repeat too often that they have been impressed with [the] technical knowledge of the masters and managers of industrial establishments on the continent", unfavourably comparing us with Germany. Continuing this rite of passage, Gavin Williamson has announced "a new ambition to super-charge further education over the next decade with an aim to overtake Germany".

Last week the substance of that aspiration was published -  the Skills for Jobs White Paper was born, with a spending review later in the year to fund it. As we digest the details, it's important to keep in mind why successive education secretaries have struggled to achieve a level playing field between HE, FE and apprenticeships. 

Long read: Meet John Cope, the man helping to revolutionise Ucas

Post-16 reform: The announcements at a glance

In full: The Skills for Jobs White Paper proposals

Putting funding to one side, it boils down, in my view, to: 1) Perception, especially among parents, of what educational "success" is; 2) What employers ask for (a strong proxy for perceived quality); and 3) How straightforward the process is to get access and support. Together, these represent cultural change - and they require all of us in education and beyond to step up.

Boosting apprenticeships

Whatever ticks these three boxes will naturally dominate our education system, almost regardless of what funding or structural changes take place, and campaigns or White Papers emerge. That's not to say these things aren't important - they are - but without cultural change, we're pushing water up the hill.

Will this time be different? Impossible to say, but I am more hopeful than ever. Employer demand for apprenticeships is high, with the Institute for Apprenticeships and Technical Education working to involve employers in designing training standards more than ever. Artificial divides are crumbling, with universities providing more apprenticeships and flexible options than ever, and around 10 per cent of higher education takes place in colleges. And finally, demand is growing - nearly 50 per cent of people filling out their Ucas application last year wanted information on apprenticeships. 

As the education secretary launched Skills for Jobs, Robert Halfon MP, chair of the Commons Education Select Committee and champion of apprenticeships, reiterated his call for a "Ucas for skills". The ministerial reply that he received was that it would be better to first look at Ucas.

I agree, and it is precisely Ucas' ambition - a joined-up admissions service. We have set ourselves five challenges to deliver a transformation: content, our service, policy work, perception and long-term reform. 

A Ucas for skills

By content, I mean Ucas' website, social media and events, which in the past too often presented apprenticeships as "an alternative to university" and emphasised three-year degrees. Our content needs to be as engaging on apprenticeships as it is on the journey to undergraduate life - there are 30 million visitors to Ucas.com each year, so getting this right is critical.

The Ucas service takes many hundreds of thousands of people each year from "I want to carry on in education or training" to their first day at college, an apprenticeship or university. There is no equivalent one-stop shop for an applicant to apply for multiple apprenticeships. As a result, employers and providers each have their own processes, approaches and administrative burdens. Ucas' origin is an agreement that a UK shared service for undergraduate admissions was more efficient and fairer than every university having its own process. The potential on apprenticeships is therefore clear, especially as smaller firms can really struggle with the admin and the Social Mobility Commission has already spotted signs of disadvantaged applicants struggling to get access to the most prestigious apprenticeships (mirroring widening participation issues at universities). 

Our first step will be to build on our existing "Career Finder" service that already includes apprenticeship opportunities, with the aim of developing a UK-wide shared service over the coming years. 

Thirdly, Ucas' data and surveys - no one understands better applicants' decisions. This regularly informs the approach of government and universities to higher education issues. We must make greater use of this data, especially on apprenticeships.

Fourth, the perception of Ucas. We aren't here to endlessly get more people into university and need to be clearer about that. We are here to get applicants to make the right choice for them with access to a fair admissions process.

Finally, longer-term reform is needed, as the White Paper sets out. One part of that puzzle is admissions reform. As well as Skills for Jobs, the government has launched a consultation on post-qualification admissions for higher education. It's important that universities are not the only voice in this debate, with consideration given to how our admissions reform can be an opportunity to boost FE and apprenticeships. For example, we could look to combine all level 3 (A levels, T levels, etc) results on one day, coupled with offer making in the same period. That could see technical qualifications, degrees or higher and degree apprenticeships on a more equal admissions footing for the first time.

To deliver the ambition of a world-class skills system to match our world-class higher education system, organisations in education need to assess how they can contribute to a level playing field, which is what we're doing at Ucas. A Skills White Paper can never be enough on its own. 

John Cope is the director of strategy, policy and public affairs at Ucas

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