How the Expansion of UCAS Apprenticeships Will Affect UK Universities

UCAS is expanding their reach even further by featuring apprenticeship opportunities. It’s a plan strongly endorsed by the Secretary of State for Education, Gillian Keegan. From next year, visitors to will be able to search and apply for apprenticeships as well as degrees and other HE qualifications. 

While UCAS has promoted degree apprenticeships for some time, this most recent announcement will see them bring in an even wider demographic of school and college leaver. In other words, not solely those considering the route affiliated to universities and higher education. 

What’s in it for UCAS?

This move means that nearly all school and college leavers in the UK will need to interact with the UCAS website. Up until now, the site has only been of merit to those who elected to apply to a higher education provider. It’s a commercial no-brainer for them. They’ll bring in millions of pounds of extra advertising revenue and significantly extend their influence within policy circles. 

Why is the government keen to push this?

Ever since the expansion of the sector brought about by the Higher Education and Research Act 1992, which turned dozens of regional Polytechnic institutions into fully-fledged universities, successive governments have sought to encourage more and more young people into university.

This trend lasted the best part of 30 years. It’s spanned five or six Prime Ministers and perhaps as many as two dozen Education Secretaries and Universities Ministers. But during the course of the last few years there has been growing negative sentiment within some of the more ideologue elements of the Conservative party towards the sector. Many in this wing depict providers, and specifically their senior leaders, as unwilling to embrace perfectly viable, alternative routes to success such as apprenticeships. 

This is at least in part reflective of some of the Conservative voter base. A group from whom more vocal criticism of the sector comes. But there are genuine policy ambitions at play here as well. The recent changes to student finance, meaning that enrolled students from 2023 will repay loans at a lower threshold and have to wait 40 years – instead of 30 – for any outstanding debt to be wiped off. As a result of these changes, some prospective students will be seeking a lower long term debt risk as an alternative to a traditional university degree. Insofar as extending the choices available to young people, this can only be a good thing.

Are expanded UCAS apprenticeships a positive or negative for UK universities?

It’s difficult to argue that this is in any way negative for the established, high-ranking, Russell Group universities. The pull of the top institutions still has significant domestic and global pulling-power. Although as we saw recently with the release of UCAS’ own main cycle data, there has been a decline in applications across all POLAR quintile demographics. Some in the sector see this as a worrying trend. 

On the one hand, it’s easy to dismiss this as largely irrelevant. This given the growing body of evidence to show that more and more prospective students now know they can apply late, or even go directly into Clearing. But it flies in the face of the evidence from the last few years. Main cycle applications are heading up, rather than down. This is further exacerbated by the fact that there are more 18 year olds in the system. The numbers should logically have gone up, and not down.  

There is likely to be a genuine threat to some of the lower-ranked, recruiting universities. Institutions who don’t already have an established degree apprenticeship route to compete with traditional apprenticeships. Those that do can be safe in the knowledge their offerings will get at least as much exposure as the traditional apprenticeships set to be offered alongside them. But is it now time for universities without these apprenticeships partnerships to explore the opportunities?