Over the past three years, 10 of the UK's most selective universities have collectively attracted £14.3 million in levy funding for degree apprenticeships, Tes can reveal.
Exclusive Tes analysis shows that since 2017-18, the year the levy was introduced, this government funding awarded to 10 Russell Group Universities has more than quadrupled: from £1,360,889 awarded in 2017-18 to £8,014,209 in 2019-20.
Of the 18 Russell Group universities that replied to a Tes freedom of information request, 11 collectively offered 60 degree apprenticeship courses, with more than 2,700 students enrolled. The other seven did not offer degree apprenticeships.
All but one of the universities that did offer a degree apprenticeship have plans to expand their offer.
Degree apprenticeships: What you need to know
The data showed that the University of Exeter received the most funding of all of the 10 universities – £4.5 million in three years, with 750 students currently enrolled on a degree apprenticeship.
Professor Tim Quine, deputy vice-chancellor (education) at Exeter, said that the university "values degree apprenticeships as part of the university’s portfolio".
He said: "They extend student choice in terms of how to attain a degree and bring a welcome diversity to our student body, supporting our long-standing commitment to widening participation.
"Much of the growth in our employer and student numbers has come about through the excellent word-of-mouth recommendations between employers in the various sectors we support, including financial services, data science and the NHS. We urge the government to continue to recognise and value the role universities can play in delivering this vital vehicle for study for diverse students."
Degree apprenticeships: Is the levy dictating policy?
Chair of the Commons Education Select Committee Robert Halfon said it was “very encouraging” to see these universities offering degree apprenticeships.
He said: “There needs to be a rocket boost across all Russell Group universities and the government should make funding to universities conditional on whether or not they offer degree apprenticeships.
“We definitely need money going to degree apprenticeships, but they need to be ones which meet our skills needs, have very good outcomes for the would-be apprentices and also help those from disadvantaged backgrounds climb the ladder of opportunity.”
The latest apprenticeships data, published by the Department for Education in August 2020, showed that higher level apprenticeships accounted for 31.5 per cent of all starts between 23 March and 31 July in 2020 – an increase of 81 per cent from the same period in 2018-19.
Whereas intermediate level apprenticeships accounted for 25.6 per cent of starts. a decrease of 30 per cent.
Shadow apprenticeships and lifelong learning minister Toby Perkins said the government was allowing the levy to dictate apprenticeship policy.
He said: “The government has handed away the responsibility for apprenticeships and now sit on the sidelines wondering why the level two and threes have gone. The apprenticeship levy is a tax policy that is dictating too much of apprenticeship policy, so it's turning into apprenticeship policy when it should be seen in its proper context.
“Neither the levy nor the degree apprenticeships should be at the expense of level two and three courses that we need.”
Redressing the balance
Simon Ashworth, chief policy officer at the Association of Employment and Learning Providers, said that for universities, degree apprenticeships were a “no-brainer” because they are trying to plug the gap in income from the loss of international students.
However, he added that there was an urgent need to redress the balance in the system between higher-level and lower-level apprenticeships.
He said: “It's a popular area with lots of demand. You can see why universities are moving into degree apprenticeships. It’s not that anyone's doing anything wrong but it's just making sure that we have a sustainable system that supports all employers and all young people.
“We've gone from a system that was dominated by SMEs and young people on level two and level three to flipping to a system that is dominated by levy-paying employers on high-level programmes and we need to come somewhere back into the middle ground.
He said that the SME market had been “strangled” in the past due to levy payers using all of their funds – and called for a separate “non-levy” budget for SMEs to offer level 2 and 3 apprenticeships.
The priorities for the apprenticeship system
Stephen Evans, chief executive of the Learning and Work Institute, said that the government needed to have a conversation about what exactly it wants the apprenticeship system to achieve.
"We need to really have a conversation about the priorities for the apprenticeship system," he said. "If you just have a purely employer-led system, then what happens is that you get the same patterns that we've had for probably 100 or so years, which is that the already-highly skilled get more training than those with lower qualifications.
“We need to try and rebalance that a little bit and make sure that young people and those with lower qualifications are able to access training, including apprenticeships. At the moment, if we carry on with this pattern, under the system we'll end up with less money for everyone to complete learning or an apprenticeship at level 2 or 3.”
He added that it was great to see the Russell Group universities offering degree apprenticeships – but that more needed to be done to increase access to the qualifications for all.
He said: “We need much stronger action on widening access to those higher-level apprenticeships. Some of the inequalities in the access that you get to university in general are being replicated in degree apprenticeships. So, for whatever degree apprenticeships we're going to have, we should make sure that we widen access, and everyone gets a fair chance to access them.”