The unfairness of funding of tertiary learners: Apprenticeships and degree programmes

Tertiary education: Further education and higher education.

I am slightly confused over why the UK Government funds further education apprenticeship programmes, many up to £27,000 for an individual  (https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/apprenticeship-funding-bands) yet does not fund higher education degree courses, which currently attract a tuition fee of £27,750 for an individual for a course (https://www.thecompleteuniversityguide.co.uk/university-tuition-fees/).

Why the contrast? The Government’s rationale for higher education tuition fee changes back in 2010 was that

“Graduates who have completed their studies and become one of the country’s higher earners will make a higher contribution towards the cost of their education. That is because as their earning rise, so will the rate of interest applied to their loan balance.

Graduates will not make a contribution towards tuition costs until they are earning at least £21,000, up from the current £15,000. The repayment will be 9% of income above £21,000, and all outstanding repayments will be written off after 30 years.” (https://www.gov.uk/government/news/changes-to-tuition-fees-and-higher-education, 15 December 2010)

Apprenticeships have been a cornerstone of Government policy for some time now and arguably are used as a political football to reduce unemployment figures, especially for young people.

Apprenticeships are continually promoted as being a good educational choice (again especially for young people) with “Increased future earning potential – apprentices enjoy marked salary increases when they complete their training, and those with an Advanced Apprenticeship earn around £117,000* more than those without, over the course of their career;”

(* Returns to Intermediate and Low Level Qualifications (September 2011) ) (http://apprenticeshipswork.org.uk/apprentices/benefits-apprenticeships/)

If apprenticeships really are so good why does the Government positively discriminate towards them at the expense of degree programme courses. Learners – whether on apprenticeships or degree programmes – will all be gaining more potential income (or so says the Government), so why aren’t they all treated equally?

Why shouldn’t an apprentice, or those on genuinely worthy selected apprenticeship programmes, be treated the same as those on degree courses, especially where the apprenticeship programme is degree level? The focus of Government rationale is that successful achievement from either route means a learner will earn more and can therefore pay back some or all of the training cost. Why aren’t they confident in what they say, and make both stand equally?

If some apprenticeship programmes aren’t good enough to attract adequate future financial returns for a learner then Government subsidy of the training costs would be more palatable – but do emphasise this to learners instead of inferring that all apprenticeships are good quality and will attract a liveable salary, i.e. one which can pay a suitable mortgage and provide adequate income for more than just the basics in life. Clearly many organisations have a vested interest in talking up apprenticeships – especially training providers, some employers, and the Government; you only need look around you in the wider economy and society to see the rhetoric doesn’t match the reality.

Unfortunately the ONS shows many jobs, especially those attracting significant numbers of apprenticeships, offer little prospects for learners: there are significant differences between the average weekly earnings for industries.

(https://www.ons.gov.uk/employmentandlabourmarket/peopleinwork/earningsandworkinghours/datasets/averageweeklyearningsbyindustryearn03)

Fairness and equality doesn’t seem to be represented in the funding of tertiary courses. Certainly time for a detailed reconsideration by the Government, especially if they wish to win  the next election.

Chris Gray, 28th August 2017