Apprenticeships versus degrees: a disaster in the making

16 May 2011

There was a really interesting piece in the Observer business section this weekend
balancing up the value of degrees and apprenticeships. “A perception
prevails, particularly among middle-class families, that choosing a path other than university is a mark of failure, a fact that concerns both employers and advocates for vocational education such
as City & Guilds,” wrote Tom Bawden.

This government (and indeed the last) was very keen to encourage young people to do an apprenticeship. But I wonder how many MPs went down this route or would encourage their children to do so?

The Observer article followed comments earlier in the week from Jill McDonald, the appropriately named head of McDonald’s in the UK. McDonald said there was too much snobbery about
workplace education and she is right.

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I completely understand the drive to get more people to go to university. But we are now reaping the whirlwind of the hugely ill-judged 50 per cent target.

Anecdotally, from talking to the young people I work with, it seems that a degree from a minor university does not make you more employable. I know senior figures in the Labour Party who are waking
up to the fact that young people now believe they were sold a pup. A lower second class degree from an obscure institution that has only just received university status is a waste of money. Young
people who have gone through the system and found their degree has not helped them land a job are warning their younger siblings not to go down this route.

At the same time, the apprenticeship system as it stands is not fit-for-purpose. Most of the money spent on them goes to the FE colleges and there is very little incentive for employers (especially
small businesses) to get involved.

All in all the situation is a disaster.

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Show comments
  • rndtechnologies786

    Your blog is good.

  • Fergus Pickering

    My elder daughter has a degree in Occuptional Therapy. My younger daughter will soon have a degree in painting. Actually both their courses (excellent) have more in commonwith apprenticeships. The OT course, like the Nursing course, is a TRAINING course and indeed she spent one thoird of her time in various hospitals. The painting course is a course in painting. You learn how to do it. By painting a lot. Sounds like an apprenticeship to me.

  • Anne Wotana Kaye 1

    The tragdy is that Britain has never recognised and appreciated its mechanics and engineers. Matthew Arnold compared the fine education and status French and Germans received in these disciplines, but at the most Britain turned its nose up at these men (and what women there were), and snobbishly delegated them beneath other professionals. Today, we seem to have forgotten the true purpose of universities, and they are mainly mills producing workers, but without the intellectual curiosity and learning universities once demanded. The modern NVQs are a complete waste of time and money. In many cases “the blind leading the blind”. Bring back the good old polytechnics and technical schools, and let universities once again be seats of research and knowledge.

  • James Copeland


    Not all apprenticeship providers are not fit for purpose. I would invite you to come and visit City Gateway in Canary Wharf to see what can be achieved with proper partnerships being created between apprenticeship training providers and the private sector.

    You’d be more than welcome.

  • Abs

    ‘Sold a pup’…you don’t say. So a degree in David Beckham studies from the University of Clacton-on-Sea doesn’t offer the same employment opportunities as a History degree from Durham….

    If all it takes is the ability to write one’s own name and to construct a simple sentence (using subject, verb, object agreement) to warrant an A* at GCSE is it any wonder our education system is geared up to portray an unfairly optimistic outlook.

  • Mr. Green

    You don’t say, Martin!

    We, on the right of lunacy, have been stating the bloomin’ obvious for years!

    Welcome to the club

  • EC

    “All in all the situation is a disaster.”

    Yes, but I don’t think that you and your ilk were too keen to go “off message” by pointing out the obvious outcome whilst Tony et al embarked up the 50% policy were you?

  • Ruby Duck

    Charlie: “sub-prime degree”

    Nice one.

  • disenfranchised

    the germans have an entirely different attitude to degrees versus apprenticeships. they have a much-respected guild system, and doesn’t it show when it comes to their housing.
    but we’ll never adopt something so obviously good, not while our renowned snobbery/anything will do attitude continues…..

  • Charlie

    Part of the problem was that in the 70s /early 80s, some unskilled/semi-skilled unions insisted that 16-18 yrs old employees working in unskilled roles received an adults wage: consequently they were better paid than apprentices of the same age. There was often over manning amongst unskilled and semi-skilled grades which pushed up labour costs. The introduction of computer aided design and manufacturing greatly reduced the needed the number of unskilled and semi-skilled personnel but increased the need for the number of people with electrical/electronic/ computer skills to design and maintain the advanced factories. Someone going through an apprenticeship may not have been better paid than someone unskilled/sem-skilled until their early mid 20s. In the mid 19 C, a foreman craftsman was paid many times that of an unskilled labourer( I have heard up to 10x) but by the mid 70s, a foreman electrician told me he was paid only 15% more than someone who was semi-skilled.

    If we want people to obtain technical skills and accept responsibility, the they must be paid considerably more than the un-skilled. A surgeon and a cleaner may both work in a operating theatre but a consultant is paid considerable more due to the skills they need and the responsibilities they carry.
    The unskilled/semi-skilled unions were often not keen on their members becoming skilled as they would leave and join the craft unions and therefore lose income. There were often demarcation disputes between unions as to which one should undertake certain tasks.

    The problem is that very few people in the UK, after about 1870 have considered how advances in technology change the nature of employment.

    Basically, advances intechnology reduce employment of un- skilled and semi-skilled people in existing industries and create new industries but often requiring greater levels of education for entry. Roads, canals, railways, steam powered ships and aeroplanes are all forms of transport but as new ones have been developed people require greater levels of education in order to be suitable for training. The skill to build a jet plane is far greater than to build a steam locomotive which in turn is far greater than to build a canal boat.

  • Edward McLaughlin

    None of this happened by accident. The training chain was, and continues to be, broken wilfully by both Labour and Tory politicians, with the dimwitted acquiescence of the trade unions

    The apprenticeship system always was a short-term liability which was seen as worthwhile for the longer term benefits in providing a skills base for the nation.

    The short-term liability is now borne by ‘training facilities overseas’ and this is all made possible through the workings of the free movement of labour or whatever other horseshit term a Dutch auction goes by this year.

  • Davey L.S

    I was an apprentice in the late 70’s -early 80’s in the print trade. The apprenticeship lasted for four years, the first of which was in full time education at the London college of Print. The training and education was excellent, but it required the industry, government and the trade unions to work together, something I can not imagine happening now. It also seemed there was a common understanding that all parties were training people for the future even if cost at the time, again can’t see that being accepted now,mores the pity.

  • escapedRoger

    Can someone please explain the reason , or rational given, for the Conservative governments decisions to give polytechnics(let alone colleges of further and higher ed.!)university status and to stop normalising school exam marks. I really think we need to know, they were mistakes.

  • Charlie

    Many degree courses in the arts/humanities from ex-polys /colleges of HE and lesser universities, benefit a wide range of people and organisations namely:- the academics and administrators employed by them; the construction industry,schools who can claim how many of their students go to universities; those people who sell services to students, be they landlords, owners of take-aways, pubs or clubs. However, many students have borrowed money for a sub-prime degree. Teenagers need to look at supply and demand. What course at which institutions are valued by employers? Many degrees in engineering technology from ex-polys are in sought after subjects are highly rated by employers but still judgement is required. A degree in civil engineering from an ex-poly is unlikely to be as highly regarded as one from Imperial.

    The problem is that pupils from a non-professional middle class background ,attending a comphrehensive lacking a history of sending pupils to Russell Group Universities, often are given inadequate or incorrect career guidance.
    Historically many engineers left grammar school at 16, became apprenticed and studied at maths, physics, engineering and chemistry at night school and either took the Council of Engineering exams or external degrees, often from London). However, many former ex polys stopped teaching degrees via night school/ week end study. Consequently, many craftsmen , especially those who were married and/or had children, were unable to take 3 years off from work and go to uiversity to read for engineering. Therefore, many craftsmen were prevented from becoming professional engineers as they could not become Chartered. RJ Mitchell- Spitfire, R Chadwick-Lancaster and B Wallis- R100 airframe, Wellington Bomber, Bouncing Bomb and swept wing technnology, all became professional engineers through apprenticeships and part time evening study.

    The railway workshops at Swindon were famous for producing engineers who started their carees as apprentices- see recent obit for Prof Sir Hugh Ford of Imperial- .
    Also Sir Bernard Crossland

    The reduction in night school/ external degree taught by local polys has greatly reduced social mobility, especially in vocational subjects of engineering,surveying chemistry, accountancy, law,banking and architecture

  • David

    @ Johnathan Woolf

    hear, hear !!

  • Rhoda Klapp

    You are right again. Damn.

  • Sir Graphus

    Once upon a school leaver with Ds and Es would decide not to bother with going to Poly, and he would get a job.

    Now, with so many graduates about, the same employer chucks away the CVs of anyone without a degree. The Poly has been rebranded a University. The Ds and Es are now C grade A levels.

    So the modern equivalent of the Ds and Es school leaver goes to university, but eventually sits down to do the same job he would have under the old system. He’s just 10k in debt and rising.

    The higher education industry is employing a lot more people using this fraud.

  • Jonathan Woolf

    Martin, I agree with much of your analysis. Unfortunately, those of you on the left won’t learn the correct lesson from this, which is that the state shouldn’t meddle at a micro-economic level, whether motivated by a desire to socially engineer, or to engender economic outcomes that the fashion of the day suggests are desireable. The iron laws of unintended consequences, wasted human efforts and potential, and badly allocated investment applies to all such centrally directed bureaucratic meddling.

    Instead the left will no doubt now clamour for government sponsored and subsidized industrial apprenticeships for all, replacing one ineffectual and expensive form of meddling with yet another.

    An obvious quick solution to the jobs and skills crisis – reducing direct taxes on the low paid (the unskilled young) and corporate taxation, particularly employer’s NI (a tax on creating jobs) will obviously remain unthinkable.

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