Educational academic Baroness Alison Wolf suggested at our recent policy discussion that parity of esteem between technical and academic education will never be "equalised", and that apprenticeships should be completely different to degrees. However, I think the newly evolving degree apprenticeships provide a real opportunity to truly integrate traditional academic study and work experience.
Degree apprenticeships are a genuine game changer. In this country, technical and vocational training has long been unfairly viewed as the poor relation of an academic education – at least by those who have had an academic education.
Even as apprentices like James Watt were driving Britain’s industrial revolution, the prosperity it brought was often used to build new universities to house its children, rather than to rewrite the educational rule book. The apprenticeship levy, and the degree apprenticeships it will fund, has the power to change all this. Why?
Firstly, because it could create an alternative corporate Russell Group. As Baroness Wolf acknowledged at the discussion, a Rolls-Royce apprenticeship has long been held in similar esteem to an undergraduate degree course. Thanks to the levy, there will now be a whole host of such apprenticeships with leading companies, which also lead to a degree.
In time, school leavers will see your Oxford or Cambridge degree and raise you an IBM or a BBC degree apprenticeship. At the discussion, apprentice Chris Achiampong noted that many who doubted his initial decision to start a degree apprenticeship have had their reservations assuaged through an understanding of the programme and its benefits.
'Have your cake and eat it'
Secondly, a degree on its own is no longer the passport to a good job that it once was. Traditionally, people went to university to train for the professions such as medicine, law, and academia. In an increasingly competitive job market, and with record numbers of young people obtaining degrees, school leavers need to differentiate themselves from their peers to get ahead.
What better way to do that than by gaining three years’ work experience while studying a degree? With most universities now marketing themselves and their courses as the means to enhance students’ employability rather than broaden their minds, this will be a compelling offer.
Finally, follow the money. If employability is your chief reason to go to university, would you choose to study for a degree while gaining experience within a FTSE 100 company and being paid to learn, or opt to pay nearly £30,000 for a CV which, some would argue, looks similar to thousands of contemporaries? In time, many of the more financially savvy will opt for the first choice.
It is more complicated than this, of course. It may be that school leavers have a burning interest in a particular subject like history and want to spend three years immersed in scholarship. If that is the case then they absolutely should be encouraged to do.
But for the first time there is now an alternative HE route, with professional associations and blue chip endorsements which will ultimately lend it equal credibility to that traditional path. For the first time, students can genuinely have their cake and eat it. Food for thought in these revolutionary times.
Ben Hughes is vice-principal for academic delivery at Pearson College London
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