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Middle-class parents should encourage children to do apprenticeships, minister says

Middle-class parents should encourage their children to do apprenticeships instead of going to university, a senior Treasury minister has said.

John Glen, Chief Secretary to the Treasury, said that apprenticeships can offer a better “return on investment” for teenagers than university degrees.

In an interview with The Telegraph, he said that removing the stigma around apprenticeships is a priority for the Treasury.

Parents who may have traditionally been focused on their children getting into a top university, “also need to remember” that they “want a return on investment”, he said.

“I think that what they want to focus on is outcomes as well. What I’m increasingly confident in is that apprenticeships offer a return on investment that is very significant.”

Campaign to raise prestige of apprenticeships

Downing Street is launching a publicity blitz for apprenticeships this week with ministerial visits to businesses around the country as part of the Government’s mission to raise the prestige of vocational training.

Mr Glen said he agreed that if more young people from all backgrounds do apprenticeships instead of university degrees it will boost UK economic growth and productivity.

Apprenticeships offer young people the opportunity to develop “deeper skills” earlier on than if they go to university, he said.

Mr Glen met apprentices at the pharmaceutical giant Astrazeneca’s Macclesfield campus on Thursday.

After leaving school at 18, they chose to join “learn while you earn” apprenticeships in areas including technology innovation, supply chains, cyber security and laboratory science research. They start on salaries of £21,500 a year and typically study for a degree qualification one day a week, without taking on any debt.

“There are new skills that are required and apprenticeships I think provide a very accessible way of developing those skills for the economy,” Mr Glen said.

He added: “What you see often with young people is they are on an inevitable trajectory apparently to go to university. And the conversations I’ve had today have underscored the fact that even though that could have been an option that many of these young people could have chosen, they elected not to, because they wanted to combine learning and paid work from day one - spending one day a week on the training.

“And so if you look at it from the quite reasonable lens of value for money and return on investment, then for some people, I think apprenticeships are what you need to do.”

Generational shift needed

Mr Glen, 48, the MP for Salisbury and South Wiltshire, is the son of a hairdressing apprentice and a horticultural small business owner who was the first in his family to go to university when he won a place at the University of Oxford to read Modern History.

He said there needs to be a generational shift around how apprenticeships are viewed by aspirational parents. “I think they [my parents] saw progress as me going to university,” he said.

“I think that needs thinking about and I think we need to treat every individual as someone who has got options and I want people to understand that apprenticeships are high quality options that are equivalent to — sometimes, for some individuals, better than - the degree that they might be contemplating when they don’t really know what it is that they’re studying.”

A record 277,315 UK 18-year-olds were accepted by universities to start undergraduate degrees last year. Figures from the Department for Education show that only 38,480 of teenagers started apprenticeships in England last year.

However, surveys have found that young people are increasingly worried about whether a university degree will offer good value for money, especially during a cost of living crisis. A third of young people now believe a university degree is “a waste of time”, according to a poll published by the UPP Foundation and Higher Education Policy Institute last week.

Radical reform ruled out

Ministers are considering how they can improve the accessibility and operation of apprenticeships to encourage more businesses to take on apprentices, with some schemes becoming intensely competitive as demand rises. Mr Glen said he wants to ensure that employers “feel a bit more that it’s not a big, bureaucratic hurdle to take on an apprentice”.

However, he ruled out radical reform of the system.

He said: “I think one of the things that people in businesses don’t like is constant change. I think we also have got to put things right where there are tweaks and changes that can make it better, rather than actually all the time making radical changes.”

The Treasury is also planning a drive to get more older workers to retrain to ensure they have the skills the economy needs.

“What we want is we want more people in work and we want more people developing skills throughout the course of their career,” Mr Glen said.

“Over a course of perhaps a 50-year career it’s unrealistic to say that you’re going to stay in one role or one functional area for all of that.

“And so I think one of the messages is: get training, realise you’re going to have to continue to train.”

Apprenticeships better value for money

A Lifelong Loan Entitlement, due to be introduced in 2025, will provide adult learners with a loan entitlement to the equivalent of four years of post-18 education.

The Government is seeking to clamp down on poor quality courses which saddle students with debt without improving their job prospects. At the end of last year, new rules came into force meaning that universities and colleges face fines of up to £500,000 if their courses breach new minimum requirements for student outcomes.

Mr Glen said that young people who go to university need to be assured “that when they go to university that they’ve got an outcome in terms of, if they do well on that course, that leads to options”.

Parents are significant influencers in a young person’s choice of higher or further education. But apprenticeships have consistently been found to have a lower reputation than university degrees. For some parents, they continue to conjure up images of overalls and manual labour.

However, there is a growing acknowledgement that some apprenticeships, particularly those which allow you to gain a university degree during the course of an apprenticeship, can be better value for money.

Multiverse, a company that helps secure apprenticeships at hundreds of businesses including Rolls-Royce, Mastercard, Travis Perkins and Trainline, said that the average apprentice it works with earns between £26,000 and £30,000 a year after completing their apprenticeship.

That is 16 per cent higher than the average graduate salary of £24,000 and comes with none of the student debt.

Higher or degree apprenticeships are now available in sectors ranging from accountancy and engineering, to IT and digital marketing.

University debt

Georgia Wignall, 20, from Preston, a laboratory scientist apprentice at Astrazeneca, said she was drawn to the apprenticeship scheme because of her love of chemistry and anxiety about taking on university debt without the guarantee of a job.

“Especially when you’ve got all that debt and there’s not a guarantee of a job at the end of it. Whereas here, you’re learning and you’ve got the job as well. I’ve always sort of preferred working to just learning so this was sort of perfect.” She studies for a chemical sciences degree run remotely by Manchester Metropolitan University and works and trains at Astrazeneca during the rest of the week.

The four-year scheme offers first-year apprentices an annual salary of £21,500.

Ryan Whittaker, 22, from Macclesfield, got offered a place at university to study Economics and Politics but turned it down to join Astrazeneca’s technology innovation apprenticeship scheme when he was 18. He has since trained in data engineering, data science and digital transformation and started a remote Master’s degree in AI last year.

“I really like to apply anything I work on because I retain it a lot better. So that’s the main reason why I chose to come into AZ. Everything that we’re working on has implications right from operations through to the R&D [research and development] side of things as well.”

Mr Whittaker said he compares himself to friends who went to university, and they are asking him for advice on doing a presentation or drawing up CVs to find a job. “It’s a bit like, maybe I’ve grown up a little bit too quickly,” he said. Digital apprenticeships at Astrazeneca have starting annual salaries of £21,500, with pay rises expected every year.