In the Middle Ages, apprenticeships were one of the central building blocks of British civilisation. Richer members of the peasant class would dispatch their progeny to live with the families of members of the craft guilds who would teach their children everything they knew. Whilst to modern eyes this might seem closer to forcing your child into living with a cult than giving them an all-important leg up into the working world, apprenticeships were all important for anyone who had aspirations to be more than one of the peasants from Monty Python’s Holy Grail. In 1563, The Statute of Artificers made it illegal for anyone to “exercise any art, mystery or occupation except he shall have been brought up therein seven years as an apprentice”. Anyone who was under the poverty line who was still eager for an education would be forced to attend one of the far less prestigious free institutions in Tudor England; such as the University of Cambridge (oh the shame!). By the early 20th Century there were over 340,000 apprenticeships granted a year which were much fought over by aspirational parents and students.
When David Cameron unveiled his 2015 flagship policy to create three million new apprentice positions by 2020 and bring back apprenticeships as a legitimate alternative to university, it was easy to forget that it was only in the past 30 years that numbers of apprenticeship places truly dwindled, reaching their low of 53,000 in 1999. Trades that traditionally thrived off apprentices such as engineers and nurses found their numbers dwindling as the university campus experience developed such cultural ubiquity that hands-on experience in a chosen field became viewed as far less important than fresher’s week and unironically drinking snakebite. The twin blows of an uncertain job market in an extremely uncertain world and the fact that increases in university fees have left student debts at a level that almost equals a small nation’s GDP has somewhat put paid to this cultural attitude and apprenticeships have returned from life support to become a more than credible alternative to finishing three years of competitive liver damage with nothing to show but a Liberal Arts degree and £27,000 worth of debt.
Companies have begun to demonstrate a real hunger for apprenticeships, BAE Systems offer higher-level apprentices over £34,000 on their completion, which is more than they offer those starting on its graduate schemes. As a result of the deluge of graduate CVs that high level companies receive every year, many find it more worthwhile (not to mention easier) to pick and choose school leavers and train them up on the job, rather than entrusting the same position to an untested graduate. A survey of members of the British Chamber of Commerce reported that 79% of employers rated work experience as the number one activity necessary to equip young people with the work place skills that they valued. In addition higher level apprenticeships (apprenticeships are ranked in levels, from level 2 which is equivalent to 5 C-grade GCSEs to Level 7 which is Masters/Postgrad level) are likely to expand significantly over the next few years as they become more familiar to employers, school leavers and (perhaps most crucially) to parents. Currently the relatively low levels of 18 year olds in high level apprenticeship programs mean that they are far less competitive than equivalent university courses.
A long held bone of contention for students is that anyone studying humanities related subjects generally receive under six hours of student-teacher contact time a week in exchange for their £9,000 a year fees, this stands is in stark contrast to the full work-day monitoring that apprentices are subject to. Whilst waking up bright and early every day for work might have been viewed as akin to a forced labour march on some campuses ten years ago, 2016 has seen student satisfaction levels drop as a full third of students have claimed that they don’t believe that their course offers anything like value for the money they’re paying and more than quarter have complained that they feel that the feedback they receive from their tutors is poor or scattershot.
Regardless of these studies, it must be said that universities still offer a great opportunity for a young person to get a greater sense of what they want out of life; be it from studying Chemistry or Keats, and Britain is home to some of the best in the world for all manner of subjects. Or conversely it is perfectly acceptable that the relative isolation from one’s peers at a key time for making long-term friendships and connections that comes with an apprenticeship compared to a university experience is enough of a stumbling block to dissuade a decent percentage of young people. However the university experience is not for everyone and every year hundreds of students who are not psychologically suited to the realities of the self-motivated and mostly unsupervised nature of higher education drop out of courses that they were never particularly suited or drawn to beyond a feeling that going to university was the expected next step for a young person in their situation, rich or poor. In coming years this number should hopefully decrease as the idea of taking an apprenticeship over a university course becomes less stigmatised and people realise that they have a legitimately crossroad fork in their lives once they finish their A-Levels. Perhaps you might go straight into an apprenticeship at a FTSE 300 company for the job you’ve always aspired to, or maybe you don’t have much of an idea of what you want to apply yourself in and a few years studying Chinese and making new relationships is just what’s appropriate, unlike either the 1990s or The Middle Ages both options are available and as valid and respectable as each other.