FE provides a key to PwC as fees for degrees bite
While recent debates on the quality of apprenticeships have done little to aid FE and skills minister John Hayes' ambition to see work-based qualifications achieve parity of esteem with university degrees, this week the programme received a timely boost from an unlikely source.
As The Times' top-ranked graduate employer, PricewaterhouseCoopers is best known for its dominance in recruiting high-achieving students fresh from university.
But figures released this week reveal that the accounting and professional services giant is now turning its attention to younger learners, and using the apprenticeship route to entice teenagers as soon as they have finished school or college.
And with an increasing number of school- and college-leavers looking for cheaper alternatives to university, the company is not short of interest: it received 2,352 applications for the 100 jobs for school- and college-leavers that it advertised this year.
This amounts to a 34 per cent increase in applications from 2011 and is more than five times the number of applications it received in 2008, before the recession began to bite, reflecting a significant foray into the FE market by the company.
This year's intake consists of 60 students studying for a higher apprenticeship in tax, 10 taking the same qualification in consulting, and 30 more recruits studying assurance in PwC's existing school- and college-leaver scheme.
And with an entry requirement of 280 Ucas points, the equivalent of two Bs and a C at A level - which is higher than for many universities - the selection process cannot be accused of lacking academic rigour.
Gaenor Bagley, a PwC partner and the firm's head of people, said that the company had been surprised by the popularity of its new apprenticeship schemes.
"The initial response to our higher apprenticeship, a new addition to our existing school- and college-leaver programmes, has been even better than expected," she said. "Talented students who are clear about their career path won't compromise on training and development, and this offers them a realistic alternative to get into business straight after A levels.
"We have recruited more than 500 school- and college-leavers over the past 10 years and this new framework further cements our commitment to widening access to the professions, while creating a nationally recognised industry qualification."
While insisting that there had not been a "wholesale shift" away from graduate entry, Ms Bagley acknowledged that PwC had been forced to adapt to higher university tuition fees and bleak economic forecasts.
Research released last month by the Higher Education Statistics Agency revealed that 20,000 graduates are struggling to find paid jobs within six months of leaving university.
Ms Bagley welcomed the growth in different routes into work. "Overall, students are looking at their options in their teens, rather than waiting until their third year at university, and for an employer that's good news," she added.
As a result, applications for apprentice and other school- and college-leaver vacancies now amount to 8 per cent of the total number the company received this year.
Sally Hunt, general secretary of the University and College Union, said that the increase in applications to apprenticeship schemes was not a free choice, but was driven by the increase in tuition fees.
"The government's decision to hike up university fees is forcing many young people to make choices about their future based on cost rather than ability," she said. "While we welcome companies offering apprenticeships to school-leavers, it is essential that young people are able to choose the path best suited to them, not the one that fits best with their bank balance."
Richard Irwin, PwC's head of student recruitment, said: "We are clear that anyone with the right talent and transferable skills, regardless of their background, has the opportunity to succeed in our business. We are working with careers advisers, schools and colleges, training organisations, parents and students to help young people make informed decisions about their future career and the route they take to get there."
Earlier this year, budget hotel firm Travelodge announced plans to hire 120 new apprentices as part of its expansion plans.
A survey of businesses by the CBI and Pearson published in June revealed that 58 per cent of employers intended to increase their recruitment of apprentices over the next three years. This comes after the number of apprenticeships in 2010-11 increased to 457,000, two-thirds more than in the previous year.