The number of young people opting for degree apprenticeships rather than “traditional” university courses is set to skyrocket, a new study has predicted.
According to Universities UK, the number of students choosing the “earn while you learn” scheme in England will soar by more than 650%, rising from 640 in 2015/16 to 4,850 a year by 2017/18.
Degree apprenticeships - first introduced in 2015 - allow students to split their time between studying and working, while course fees are shared between the government and employers.
Supporters of the scheme say apprenticeships not only address key skill shortages in engineering, tech and chartered management, but offer much-needed opportunities to part-time and mature students.
Universities UK president Dame Julia Goodfellow said: “Many people feel they have been left behind in the drive to increase higher level skills in recent years.
“Degree apprenticeships are an excellent way to get to these harder-to-reach groups while, at the same time, ensuring that what we deliver on campus meets the needs of students, the local area and its employers.”
A range of employers, including Mercedes-Benz, Nestle, IBM and Transport for London, already work with universities to offer degree apprenticeships.
By 2017/18, it is expected that at least 60 universities in England will be involved in the scheme, offering courses to more than 7,6000 apprentices.
The “tuition-free” schemes have hit the headlines in recent months, with the College of Policing launching a new three-year degree apprenticeship for aspiring police officers.
A similar programme was announced in December for graduates looking to become prison officers. While making more than £20,000 working on the front line, apprentices in the scheme will also be given the chance to earn a masters degree.
But the Universities UK report states that more must be done to communicate the “mutual benefits” of degree apprenticeships to both students and employers.
“We would urge the government to work with us to do more here as part of its industrial strategy,” Goodfellow added.
Skills and apprenticeships minister Robert Halfon said: “With our reforms to apprenticeships, we are challenging the idea that a traditional university course is the only way in to a top career.
“They give people of all ages and all backgrounds a ladder of opportunity to getting a degree, high quality training for jobs and will help shape the future of our workforce,” he continued.
“But I know there’s more to do, which is why we will continue working hard to ensure we raise the prestige and quality of apprenticeships so even more people take up the opportunities out there.”
But the University and College Union has raised concerns about the rapid increase in the popularity of degree apprenticeships, saying it is important that “quality is not sacrificed in a rush to expand”.
General secretary Sally Hunt said: “UCU and others have raised concerns about some employer-led apprenticeship standards being narrowly drawn, so it’s vital that educators have a voice in developing new standards and qualifications.”
“Universities must also support staff to ensure that workloads are not increased further as a result of growing the number of these qualifications.”