For many years, a three-year honours degree studied full time has been seen as the golden road to a successful career and a fulfilled life.
With a rising cohort of 18-year-olds, attention has turned to jobs with higher and degree level apprenticeships to provide extra opportunities for qualified 18-year-olds, although lurking in the background is a zero-sum game of fewer full-time Level 6 degrees replaced by more Level 6 apprenticeships.
This zero-sum approach should be rejected but there is a middle way between these options: two-year full-time technical degrees.
Problems with full-time three-year degrees
The benefits of full-time higher education to acquire knowledge, develop personal skills and attitudes, and produce well-rounded workers and citizens are at the heart of the English post-18 education and skills system.
This traditional HE experience has come to be seen as a rite of passage, even an entitlement for over a third of 18 year-olds who scramble to find a full-time place each year.
However, as the costs of a university education continue to rise, concerns have been expressed from two different directions.
First, students are increasingly worried by those increasing costs, particularly to afford the cost of living away from home and having enough money left over to buy the bare essentials. Although the prospect of debt appears not to have discouraged large numbers of students from applying, the practical implications of living with low income and mounting debt have become a major concern for many.
Second, the government too seems to have doubts about the value of some types of university education. Whilst the term “Mickey Mouse” degree is undoubtedly an unfair label, a poor-quality learning experience with high drop out and which leads to a low paid job with little prospect of progression or even beginning to pay off around £50,000 worth of debt, is of concern to the taxpayer.
Whether motivated by concern for students and value for money or at the mounting demands on the public purse, senior politicians have become increasingly critical of institutions and courses which offer only a “fake dream”. Punitive measures for universities including fines and other penalties have been proposed, adopting the stick rather than the carrot.
Expanding Higher and Degree Apprenticeships
Against this background of increasing doubt, the government is desperately seeking to expand Higher and Degree Apprenticeships at Level 4-6. But for many, this choice is not on the table.
Across England, the number of 16-18 year-olds on Level 4-6 apprenticeships – primarily at age 18 – is no more than 5,000. The issue is not individual choice. The constraint is employer demand.
An employer is needed to make a higher and degree level apprenticeship an actual opportunity for an 18 year-old who has received their Level 3 results over the summer and is looking for a study programme to start in September or October at the latest.
Employer choice determines the age of apprentices, the level of the apprenticeship and the type of apprenticeship under the present system.
Even if the DfE ring-fenced, say, 25% of the £2.5bn apprenticeship budget specifically for Degree Apprenticeships for 18 year-olds, there is no guarantee that employers would demand apprentices at that age.
This is not to say that the government should not work with employers in every part of England – especially those involved in Employer Representative Bodies leading on Local Skills Improvement Plans – to increase employer demand for Degree Apprenticeships specifically for 18-year-olds.
But the likelihood of a Degree Apprenticeships emerging as a large-scale pathway for 18 year-olds, with an extra 50,000 on them whilst enrolment on full-time Level 6 degrees remains steady, seems unlikely.
Two-year full-time Level 5 technical degrees
The solution for 18-year-olds is to take away the uncertainty of being at the whim of employer demand from Degree Apprenticeships and yet retain the certainty associated with full-time study by enrolling on two-year Level 5 technical degrees.
A two-year full-time Level 5 Higher Technical Qualification (HTQ) can be studied at a university with a clear grasp of the opportunities technical qualifications can offer or at another provider such as Further Education Colleges or independent providers.
By definition, the cost to the 18 year-old would be two-thirds of a three year full-time degree. Fee and maintenance loans would only have to be taken out for two years rather than three.
Making the option attractive
It is vital that 18 year-olds know they have the chance to study what they consider to be the best two-year full-time Level 5 technical course at what they consider to be the best institution.
18 year-olds need to be able to study away from home if they want to although many might wish to live close by, either at home with their parents or renting locally.
For many, this model will also open-up the opportunity to continue with part time employment, off-setting some of the cost of living and developing the “soft” people skills valued by employers, which are difficult to acquire outside the workplace.
Some institutions already structure their teaching timetable to facilitate part time employment, for example by concentrating delivery on two days per week.
Following the path laid by the newly introduced T Levels, a period of relevant work experience should be part of every HTQ. Given the restrictions imposed by geography, work placement grants could be provided to cover subsistence and travel costs for those students who do not live near an employer offering the careers they wish to follow.
This would undoubtedly be a benefit for both students and employers, especially in specialist industries where location can be a limiting factor.
Employers could be encouraged (and funded) to provide short work placements. Forward thinking employers would see this as a great opportunity to recruit motivated individuals with real commitment to their industry and may even be prepared to contribute to the cost.
Maintenance grants for two-year full-time technical education students
We know the country is in a dire fiscal state. And we know there is interest in returning maintenance grants – in addition to existing levels of maintenance loans – to assist full-time students from poorer backgrounds with the cost-of-living crisis.
One option would be to offer means-tested maintenance grants for young people who wish to study two-year technical degrees in areas the economy needs.
This would be a win-win for our economy, the taxpayer and students with an interest in higher level technical education.
John Widdowson is chair of NCG but is writing in a personal capacity