DA Nottingham

The Social mobility in Great Britain report identifies that the chances of someone improving their socio-economic standing are dependent on where they live. Degree apprenticeships are one of the mechanisms at the forefront of the Government’s agenda to enable and support social mobility, but how can this help bring the scale of change required?

Degree apprenticeships and a diverse workforce

Government reforms, and the introduction of the apprenticeship levy for large employers, have created an expectation that apprentices should be hired to develop the workforce and minimise local skills gaps. Meanwhile employers note that a key challenge for them is to increase diversity.

Degree apprenticeships could be the solution to both of these agendas. Higher education (HE) providers can use their experience of recruiting and working with students from disadvantaged backgrounds to connect employers to those who have the potential to succeed through an alternative route of learning.

National evidence from HEFCE on degree and employment outcomes continues to show that students from particular groups (such as those from ethnic minority groups, those from disadvantaged areas and some groups of disabled students) do not achieve the degree and employment outcomes expected even when other factors have been taken into account. However, if you incorporate work experience, the outcomes differ (Kerrigan et al, 2018).

Improving outcomes for disadvantaged students

Research at Nottingham Trent University (NTU) found that when disadvantaged students undertake a sandwich placement their graduate outcomes improve and are equivalent to advantaged students, compared to a negative gap and significantly lower graduate outcomes when studying a full-time course.

Work placements are therefore particularly beneficial to under-represented students (Kerrigan et al, 2018; Binder et al, 2014; Saniter and Seidler, 2014). If we can apply these findings to degree apprenticeships – which also combine academic study and work experience – this could be an alternative educational route for under-represented learners to be just as, if not more, successful than their advantaged counterparts. Furthermore, as degree apprenticeships offer the possibility of ‘earning while you learn’, this route is an attractive option for disadvantaged students.

With work and study combined, apprenticeships could also help improve the graduate prospects for women. Females outperform males throughout school and college and are more likely to enter HE. When they do so they’re more likely to successfully progress through their course and more likely to get a good degree. But, once they graduate, they are less likely to get graduate level jobs.

Using data to better understand student engagement

There are further interventions that HE providers are undertaking to help disadvantaged students. NTU won the THE’s University of the Year in 2017, in part due to its leadership in using data-rich approaches to transform the lives of young people.

Through data, HE providers are able to identify where students with different characteristics are likely to disengage with study. So we can help employers to identify at an early stage if apprentices are disengaging with their learning. Here the strength of the relationship between the employer, the university and the apprentice is a vital component of the apprentice’s success.

Therefore, with the combination of both work and study, we hope that degree apprenticeships will build upon the positive impacts already identified. To fully realise this success, it is imperative for degrees and qualifications embedded within apprenticeship standards to remain – this will ensure the portability of individual qualifications and the lifetime learning potential of all students.

Providing outreach through higher education providers

The Department for Education’s careers strategy highlights the importance of employers and training providers having the ‘opportunity to talk with all pupils’. HE providers are well-placed to facilitate this through outreach to primary and secondary schools so they can attract potential apprentices from differing backgrounds. For example, in 2014-15, 30 per cent of pupils from low participation neighbourhoods who NTU worked with progressed to higher education, compared with 16 per cent of Nottingham pupils overall.

Together, employers and HE providers could bring about change, attracting apprentices from all backgrounds at an early age. This in turn will begin to meet the needs of employers, 93 per cent of whom say that they believe achieving a diverse and inclusive workforce is important to their future success.

Degree apprenticeships are a great opportunity for employers and HE providers to help boost social mobility. Policy decisions could have the opposite outcome to those intended if not made carefully.


Binder, J., Baguley, T., Crook, C. and Miller, F. (2015). The academic value of internships: Benefits across disciplines and student backgrounds. Contemporary Educational Psychology, 41, pp.73-82

Kerrigan, Manktelow and Simmons (2018). Sandwich placements: Negating the socio-economic effect on graduate prospects, Journal of Widening Participation & Lifelong Learning

Saniter, N. and Siedler, T. (2014). Door opener or waste of time? The effects of student Internships on labor market outcomes.

See all blog posts on apprenticeships