Treating Students Fairly: The Economics of Post-School Education Contents

Appendix 5: Informal evidence session and visit note

During the inquiry, the Committee held a series of informal evidence sessions in London and Birmingham. The purpose of these sessions was to ensure that we heard the broadest possible range of views and in particular, heard from students and apprentices. We are grateful to all who attended the events and participated in the discussions.

Visit to Birmingham, 14 December 2017

On 14 December 2017 six members of the Committee visited Birmingham. This visit included informal evidence sessions hosted by Aston University with further education college students studying at Birmingham Metropolitan College; pupils from Aston University Academy of Engineering, a university technical college (UTC); and staff from Aston University and the Aston University Academy of Engineering. The visit also included lunch and a roundtable discussion with local businesses hosted by the Birmingham Chamber of Commerce, and a presentation from staff and tour of Warwick Trident College.

Members who attended the visit were: Lord Forsyth (Chairman); Lord Burns; Baroness Bowles of Berkhamsted; Lord Kerr of Kinlochard; Lord Sharkey; and Lord Turnbull.

Students from Birmingham Metropolitan College

Birmingham Metropolitan College is an FE college with approximately 20,000 students across four campuses. The college offers nearly 300 different courses. It has significant relationships with large local employers such as Samsung Electronics, Caterpillar and The Baxi Group.

The College performs well in media and graphics, business and professional services, and vocational medical sciences. It also specialises in the delivery of high level technology and advanced manufacturing training. In 2013 the College won an award for apprenticeship innovation for their BTEC apprenticeship frameworks for 16 to19 year olds and adult learners.

16 students from Birmingham Metropolitan College attended. The students were split into three groups. Two Committee members led a discussion with each group. Notes were taken by Committee staff.

Choosing what and where to study

The students gave a variety of reasons for choosing their current courses, including: it leads to a university degree and “after university you are guaranteed a job” and to keep options open and see what “I might want to explore in the future”.

Many students had chosen courses that would lead to a specific occupation—such as nursing, architecture, or accountancy—after further study. Some students considered their focus was atypical, commenting “most people our age don’t know what they want to do. They’re just messing about”.

On one table, all the students came to the college because they couldn’t do the courses they wanted to at their school sixth forms. On other tables the choice was influenced by college outreach and open days. All the students had only looked at local colleges.

All of the students were being financially supported by their parents during college. Some were aware of bursaries available to help with living and travel costs. There were some concerns about current funding arrangements, in particular the removal of the education maintenance allowance which one student felt left them dependent on family handouts.

Future plans

The students’ future plans included to seek an apprenticeships, including with large local employers such as HS2 and Jaguar Land Rover. One student wanted to do a degree apprenticeship as that was “the next logical step” as you get “a foundation degree and get paid and have a guaranteed job at the end of it.”

Many students were concerned about the cost of student loans. There was a general understanding that they would not need to pay anything back until earning £25,000. The students admitted that they did not fully understand how student loans worked. There was a fear of ‘debt’ ‘hanging over’ a person from university. One student asked: “are they just making it more expensive so that less people go to university?”

Maintenance support was a particular concern: “I’m not worried about the tuition loan system, I’m worried about maintenance. I don’t care if it’s a loan or a grant, university students struggle to live.”

The students suggested a number of changes to the current system:

Students from Aston University Academy of Engineering

The University Technical College opened in September 2012 in Birmingham and is sponsored by Aston University and the Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics Network. Its business partners include E.ON, Goodrich Corporation, National Grid plc, and the Royal Air Force. The UTC’s catchment area covers the Birmingham metropolitan borough for 14 to19 year olds.

The first Ofsted inspection of the UTC in 2014 rated it as ‘good’ noting that “lessons are strongly linked to the types of activity students are likely to encounter in the workplace, including substantial use of computer based technology”.

15 pupils the UTC attended. They were split into three groups. Two Committee members led a discussion with each group on the topics below. Notes were taken by Committee staff.

Why and how did you choose to go to the UTC?

Reflecting the UTC’s specialism, most students were studying engineering or a related discipline. Their reasons for choosing the UTC included:

One of the students commented that the UTCs are “not advertised as well as they should be. I only found out through one person who came and visited my school.” Other’s found out through family members: “my Mum pushed me to go to [here] after she’d found out through word of mouth about the opportunities” and “my dad found out and told me about [the UTC]. I went on the internet and found out whatever I [could]”

What are you going to do next?

The students noted that in all their cases there would need to be a further stage before full time employment: “We wouldn’t have enough qualifications or experience for a financially stable job–a lot of the jobs we want require a qualification.” Their plans included:

Two students commented that their “grades were good enough” for university and implied that apprenticeships would be open to those with lower grades.

One student cited fees as the “main reason for thinking about apprenticeships first …Apprenticeships give you job and degree. [You] can come out degree and not get a job as [you] don’t have skills for a specific job.” But another student was “not worried about tuition fees”. He noted that “they only take money from your account if you earn above 25k and they only take a percentage of that … That is very helpful when you are inexperienced [and] you may not earn that much money.” Another student thought that “tuition fees are frightening … you can step into an area and not know you will succeed. Most people fear failure and are not wiling to take the risk. Students [would] rather go into a field there is a high demand for.”

One student felt that the apprenticeship route was not available for all careers and “sometimes you have to pay fees if you want the qualification. If you want the qualification you don’t have another choice.” For this reason “fees [are] not as fair as they could be.” One noted that in his field [electrical engineering] “only the big companies” offered degree apprenticeships “mainly because of the cost involved in the degree.” Another student commented that partnerships between big and small companies could help this issue.

University and college staff

The Committee held an informal evidence session with: Helen Higson, Provost and Deputy Vice Chancellor at Aston University and Ruth Sorsby, Assistant Principal—Curriculum and Assessment, University of Aston Engineering Academy (UTC). A note was taken by Committee staff. Topics discussed included

Information provided to students

The quality of information is poor. For example “on degree apprenticeships, we know there is nothing out there. … We are very worried young people don’t know about degree apprenticeships.” Advice needs to be impartial and start from an early age “[Aston] do a lot of work, thinking about pathways.”

Co-operation with schools had improved: “when we first set the UTC up, schools were sceptical, and often sent us their most challenging students.” Now “the schools are more open to providing students with better choices. It is not perfect, still work to do but we have come a long way.”

Degree apprentices

Employers are at the centre of degree apprenticeships: “Employers design the programmes, … We take what the employer needs, and then teach. It’s a nightmare to organise, which is why there is not a great pipeline of apprenticeships. But it is a very well designed product. You can’t just design degrees because you want to design a degree in something”. The most apprenticeships are available in engineering which is “ahead of the game”. But other areas, such as the health sector, are catching up.

In terms of funding, the student doesn’t pay fees and the company funds them through university. The university does not currently make money on apprenticeships and they had “decided it would be a loss leader for us initially.”

The operation of apprenticeships varied between companies. “The first two cohorts we have had [of degree apprenticeships], have to spend at least 20 per cent of their time away from the company. Some of the apprentices had seven promotions within the company. They come out with no debt, they get pay rises … that runs independently of how they do on the degree apprenticeship, they are just an ordinary employee.” This poses challenges for the university who “we can’t treat them like campus students… We have to look at them in a completely different way”.

The dropout rate amongst degree apprenticeships is much lower than traditional degrees. At Aston it was 5 per cent last year.

Qualifications requirements

Aston stated that they were “particularly keen to get people with non-traditional qualifications to come. We are piloting it through the degree apprenticeship. I think too many schools are stuck with traditional A-Levels. For our first [degree apprenticeship] cohort, 70 per cent got 2.1 degrees and it was pretty much the same with the second cohort.”

There is an issue at the UTC that “some students are doing UTech diplomas in science but the universities want A-Level science. Why do they need A-Level as well? We need universities to understand the course content.”

Student loans

Aston University has seen changes in student behaviour “since the change in fees to £9,000, students are thinking more about what they are doing, sticking to it more than before.” At Aston “40 per cent of students are from the wider West Midlands area. The proportion living at home has grown in recent years. Students on campus achieve better results than those at home. Some scholarships have been targeted at people so that they can live on campus.”

Change to the current system:

Round table discussion with local businesses

This event was arranged and hosted by the Greater Birmingham Chambers of Commerce and was attended by 15 representatives from local businesses:

The following issues were raised during the discussion:

Technical and further education system

Many participants were critical of the current system, commenting that “vocational skills are a disaster” and had resulted in “millions of hairdressers and no engineers”. The complexity of the current system and frequent changes were a source of frustration: “[there has been] more change in the last 10 years than in the previous 90 years … Employers and managers are just confused”. Another simply asked “what the hell is a T-level?”

Value of a university education

Employers felt that the current tertiary education system did not meet their needs: “There’s insufficient high quality technical people, these things aren’t ‘sexy’ to do at university, and so we’re really struggle to get those people.” Another business said, “there’s an oversupply of history graduates and an under supply of ‘geeks’.”

This was also a problem for graduates: “We’re having to employ massive numbers of humanities graduates to do customer service jobs because they’ve got nowhere else to go. But there’s no incentive for them to stay in that job for any long period of time so we get a massive turnover of staff in that area. They’re normally very recent graduates in their first or second job.”

Graduates often the lacked skills necessary for the modern workplace “We need … practical skills. People don’t train in that, employers and universities are guilty of that failure.” Another business pointed out that “Dentists have £1,000s of debt when they qualify, but not a single thing they’ve learnt is about running a business. There needs to be more integration into the technical side, real world experience”

One accountancy business compared graduate and non-graduate employees: [people who] “work for me … come from school at 18 and are trained to be an accountant. I’ve also had graduates who have come in and are training. If I compare them both at 25 they are so different. [Those who started at]18 are full qualified and much more mature and commercial compared to graduates who have had three years of fun and are programmed to having six weeks off in the summer.”

Parity of funding

It was suggested that the Government should put the FE sector and technical sector “on a par with the academic sector in terms of funding.” The businesses pointed out that students pay £9,000 p.a. FE colleges get less that £4,000 p.a. to provide “something that may be more complicated”.

There was general agreement that FE has been substantially underfunded. “FE provides so much glue for those who didn’t know what they wanted to do, mopping up those who weren’t on the traditional academic route.” o One of Birmingham FE college has the same number of students as Birmingham University, “but a fraction of the funding”.

Careers advice

Participants thought that schools should do more to promote non-degree options, but acknowledged that businesses also have a role in this: “Students at college would all say the options available to them are so complicated. The issue is schools don’t talk about anything other than the standard academic route. We don’t market other options well at all. We need to do much more in breaking down those barriers. When you do get students in front of you talking about things like apprentices, about working from day one, they’re so pleasantly shocked. It’s phenomenal.”

Some noted that JLR had put in a “huge” amount of “effort and resource to build [a] reputation with schools”, but that was not a viable route for many smaller companies.

Equity in careers information was required. “University is seen to be the place to go and there is not the same amount of information about apprentices and skills training.”


Many attendees were dissatisfied with the apprenticeship levy and felt it had failed: “The public sector is the biggest contributor to the levy in Birmingham. If the incentive was to encourage private sector apprentices, it has failed.”

Specific problems included:

There was a discussion about the concern that the levy money was being used on existing employees. One business thought that “larger firms are using levy to work out how to fund training they were already going to offer.”

One business pointed out that requiring firms to spend levy money on new employees would “cause havoc” especially in big companies. They “will not be able to employ that many new people each year. I can’t see how companies can do that.”

Another business felt that the attention should be on “reskilling and upskilling” and that companies were focused on “worries about today’s skills and not tomorrow’s skills”. They needed to “develop tomorrow’s skills” which meant “upskilling” existing employees “as well as new employees.” To this end “The levy should be “reframed as a training levy”. This could also help the UK invest more in skills.

One table had a discussion of vocational training and digital skills. It was noted that 60 per cent of businesses in the West Midlands do not have a website. Another participant stated that “a lot of companies are missing a trick and don’t use social media” … “if you just work on the old system of brochures and phone calls [you] don’t reach the people you need.”

An example was given of a digital lab where apprentices work with larger companies on a project and then provided free help to start ups. In one recent example a 16-year-old apprentice helped a local grime DJ to design an app to connect musicians, producers and DJs.

Warwickshire Trident College / JLR training academy

Jaguar Land Rover is the UK’s largest automotive apprenticeship provider. Jaguar Land Rover offers Advanced, Higher and Degree level apprenticeships. Jaguar Land Rover have six apprenticeships facilities across the UK including at Warwick Trident College.

Warwick Trident College is part of the Warwickshire College Group. The group manages with a faculty of around 1,000 staff for approximately 17,000 students. The group offers more than 1,000 courses over 20 areas of discipline. Warwick Trident College’s current building opened in 2016 and offers facilities to train students in manufacturing, mechanical, electrical, electronic, automotive and product creation sectors. The College is a partner in the Jaguar Land Rover Academy alongside University of Warwick and EEF.

Angela Lopes, CEO Warwickshire College Group; and Peter Husband Deputy Vice Principal, Warwickshire Trident gave a presentation about the college followed by a tour of the college of facilities.

Informal evidence from students .

On 21 November the Committee held an informal discussion with 40 students. The students were selected from a range of universities across the country and a variety of courses. Students studying part-time and mature students were also represented.

The students were split into tables and each group held discussion with representatives of the Committee. A set of questions drawn up by the Committee were used to provide an aid to discussion. An anonymised note was taken by a member of staff at each table. A summary of the topics discussed is set out below.

Post school options: why did you choose to go to university?

Reasons given by students included:

One student knew apprenticeship was an option but no their school gave them no further information and it would have “taken a lot of effort to find out about.” Several participants stated that the quality of career advisors in school is “really poor.”

Choice of university

An international student stated that prestige was important, “studying in London looks better than somewhere like Hull. London gives you exposure to different contacts and opportunities.”

One student stated they looked at the National Student Survey, but they didn’t understand a lot of the questions and it was not accessible to a lot of students. Several students stated that they made their final choice based on their experience at university open days/events. There was mixed reaction to league tables. Some thought they were “worthless”. Others looked at specific metrics, such as the student satisfaction scores”.

Student loan system

In general the students were critical of the current arrangements:

Many found the loan and repayment system difficult to understand: “You just get a letter saying how much you’re getting and then when you leave you get a letter saying how much you owe and that’s it, it inevitably just gets put away in a folder.”

One student had looked at the Student Loan Company website before coming to the session and found it “so vague” despite working in finance she found it hard to “nail down” what interest rate applied.

Several students commented that the total debt that would be incurred across a degree was not stated clearly: “When you take a loan for a car, people spell out how much cost you will incur. This doesn’t happen for students.” And “At no point do the student loan company tell you how much you will have to give back.”

Changes to the loan system

Suggested changes included

Maintenance loans

The loans do not cover the cost of living: One student [studying in London] had £50 left each week after paying rent. She knew people whose loan doesn’t cover accommodation costs. Another commented [loans are] “currently are not sufficient to cover groceries, housing and people are suffering to get through university and then get jobs that did not require a degree.”

It was noted that students in London get additional financial support but other cities are just as expensive but are not getting the same amount of loan as those in London. Means testing means students from less wealthy backgrounds can take out bigger maintenance loan but it essentially means that they will have to pay back more.

Prospects after university

Many students felt that a degree was necessary, but not sufficient for a job:

Informal evidence from apprentices, 20 February 2018

On 20 February, five Committee members381 held an informal evidence session with apprentices. The apprentices came from five companies (John Lewis, KPMG, Pret a Manger, Rolls Royce and BAE) and two training providers (the Association of Accounting Technicians and the Advance Manufacturing and Research Centre).

The participants were placed into four groups and each group held discussion with representatives of the Committee. A set of questions drawn up by the Committee were used to provide an aid to discussion. An anonymised note was taken by a member of staff at each table. A summary of the topics discussed is set out below.

Experience of finding and choosing an apprenticeship

The participant’s reasons for doing an apprenticeship varied. Some knew that they did not want to go to university. This reason was often associated with the level of debt they would incur. Others had secured places at university. One person changed ‘at the last minute’ to an apprenticeship due to a family member who had been an apprentice suggesting this route. One participant had done a year at university but dropped out and then applied for and secured a degree apprenticeship. One student said that “I went to University because I never heard about apprenticeships.” …“ I had to leave University because I couldn’t cover my rent with my student loan and my parents had to support with the costs”

Those doing degree apprenticeships actively chose to do an apprenticeship over university (one participant had the grades to study at a Russell Group university but chose a degree apprenticeship)

Some participants ‘fell into’ an apprenticeship: One participant deferred her university place, worked for a year, and then decided to stay and do an apprenticeship at the company. Another did not get the grades for university and so ‘by accident’ chose to do an apprenticeship.

Careers advice

The information available from schools and colleges on apprenticeships was generally considered to be poor, in particular compared to support and information about university.

The general feeling was that “school pretty much says you have to go to university or nothing.” “Schools pushing university means that students think apprenticeships are rubbish”.

Some resented the significant time and support allocated to UCAS. One participant was told he had to do an application despite having secured a prestigious apprenticeship. Another said “My school allocated time aside from lessons to prepare for UCAS, but I didn’t want to do that, so was just sat there”.

Some found out about apprenticeships through presentations by companies at their school. Some participants thought that whilst their schools were “open to the idea” of apprenticeships they “don’t know how to approach it.” A number of apprentices had returned to their schools to give presentations about their experience and tell others about what is available.

Those who had attended FE colleges (rather than school sixth forms) felt they were given more information and support. One noted that “when I went to college my tutor had come from industry so he was really clued up”

Due to the lack of information from school many found out about apprenticeships through their own efforts. They used websites such as Not Going to Uni, Rate My Apprenticeship, or The Big Choice. One apprentice commented that the National Apprenticeship Service website was “not that helpful” and made it hard to search for apprenticeships.

The apprentices felt that perceptions about apprenticeships were changing. One apprentice commented that “my parents were very against me doing an apprenticeship–as everyone goes to university–at the end of A-Levels I showed them it was a better route [ … ] so they let me try it out. I got in quickly now they are very proud of me”.

Families were also impressed by the additional opportunities offered by apprenticeships. One apprentice noted that “All extra things make them even happier” when he told his mother he was coming to participate in this event she “couldn’t have been more proud”.

Views on your apprenticeship so far

The precise structure of the apprenticeships varied between apprentices (even those within the same company, but on different courses). Some did one day a week in college, others had blocks of time at university or college. Training was generally provided by an external provider (such as a local university or FE college or one of the large national providers). The quality of educational provision was variable: some had found it excellent. One set of apprentices said that at certain levels the training offered was “awful” and that the company was aware of their concerns.

One apprentice felt that geography played a part: he pointed out that some apprentices have the grades for Russell Group universities, but degree apprenticeship provision is from the university local to the firm. He felt in these circumstances “apprentices’ expectations are not always met by the local universities.”

Funding and living costs

The majority of apprentices lived at home which reduced their living costs. For those living away from home money was tight. One apprentice stated that: [The apprenticeship itself] was not costing me any money. [But] because I’ve had to move away from home [I need to] pay for everything unsupported. If he had gone to university “I’d have had a maintenance loan”.

There were advantages of moving away from home. One apprentice felt that “I’ve grown up a lot more than my friends [who went to university] have. I’m getting a mortgage soon. They haven’t grown up as much.”

Whilst money was a concern, some preferred to take a long-term approach, pointing out that “by the time I finish my starting salary will be almost as much as [students] are in debt.”

In terms of the social aspects, those at larger companies considered that these were provided. For example there were social clubs (sports and music) and social events. One apprentice said his company had an “apprentice and graduate association which organises all the mad things you get with uni.”

Long term career prospects

Most apprentices felt that on completion of their course they would be on at least an equal footing with graduates. They pointed out that they would have “more experience in the company” and have “three years worth of networking”. One apprentice stated: “A qualification is nothing compared to experience you get on the job. I’ve learnt more in a year on my placement than I have in all my education.”

One apprentice indicated that she had worked on projects with graduates and been given more responsibility based on her experience. Some reported the difficulties that their friends who had gone to university had: “Many of my [graduate] friends can’t get jobs. Now they’re trying to find internships and even apprenticeships to get foot in the door.” In the services sector the qualifications achieved were seen as the key: “once you have the ACA [accounting qualification] the world is your oyster, you can do anything”.

What changes would you make to the current system?

Suggested changes suggested included:

Roundtable with medium sized businesses, 6 March 2018

On 6 March 2018 the Committee held an informal evidence session with medium sized businesses. The event was organised in conjunction with the London Chamber of Commerce. The attendees were firms who are large enough to pay the apprenticeship levy, but not in a position to operate large scale inhouse training programmes.

The event was attended by ten businesses and five member of the Committee.382 The businesses represented were:

The Chairman asked the businesses to introduce themselves and to set out their experiences of the apprenticeship levy and apprenticeships generally. The following themes emerged from the introductions and subsequent discussion.

Experience of apprentices

Companies who had apprenticesmainly prior to the levy coming into operation —spoke positively about them: it was a “largely enjoyable experience”. In the technology and digital sector apprentices were turned to “as a route of last resort” when it was found that graduates didn’t have the necessary skills. Apprentices had proved to be “very valuable for our business and a real driver for growth.”

One business said that the biggest issue she had when she started to take on apprentices was that “they didn’t have the skills we needed and weren’t ready for work”. She started a pre-employment bootcamp programme to address this. A second attendee ran a training provider which offered, inter alia, ‘traineeships’, six week courses to prepare young people to do an apprenticeship. These involve maths and English and soft skills. He described these as “key” so when young people “enter an apprenticeship they don’t fall out”.


One business commented that the levy was “difficult to get to grips with”. It was introduced “very quickly” and contained some contradictions and conflicts.

The levy was seen as a tax: some employers said that “everybody talks about it as a tax”. The amount of levy funds that could be drawn down and applied to various types of apprenticeships were felt by many to not meet the businesses costs of training them. For example, £5000 was available from the levy for a boat captain apprenticeship; the cost to the employer was £10,000. As a result, the business had cut the budget for training for other staff. By contrast tech sector apprenticeships were “very well funded” up to and including degree apprenticeships.

It was acknowledged that business “were not spending their levy money quickly” and were “tending to use it for their existing staff”. One employer was not attempting to spend the £20,000 levy contribution as it was “too much bureaucracy and hassle to bother” and the apprenticeships on offer were not relevant.

Some businesses openly acknowledged that they were currently only spending funds on existing staff. On businesses accepted that they had ‘rebadged’ established internal training schemes as apprenticeships. Places on these were offered only to internal applicants. “We are basically badging what we were doing anyway to get the money back.”

Some attendees compared the current arrangements to those in operation for their businesses prior to the levy. For example, one had established a pathway for existing employees to train as ship’s captains; another had an internal academy offering legal and non-legal qualifications. The construction industry representatives spoke of a levy scheme operated by the Construction Industry Training Board which firms paid into. The CITB then covered the cost of training and provided funds to cover wages. The only effective cost to the company was the lost labour from the apprentices one day a week in college.


One employer was involved in writing standards. He attributed the delay to the demands placed on the businesses groups responsible for writing the standards. Involvement in these ‘trailblazer’ groups for 12 months to two years was “too time consuming for the majority of SMEs”. He pointed out that:

“The promise and the process of turning two sides of A4 into qualifications has been really drawn out. Part of the problem is that employers asked to develop marking criteria for the standards from scratch. I don’t know how to do that–I can do the output required … . Employers were asked to engineer the standard from beginning to end. They should have been asked to define the desired output and a qualification authority or training provider should be done other issues.”

Some businesses had struggled to navigate the standards and couldn’t find “anything relevant from providers for our businesses”. A niche cleaning company wanted to offer apprenticeships but there was no standard, so was now trying to “shoehorn” a supervisory role into a general management standard.

The quality and behaviour of providers was a consistent concern. Generally, it was thought that they didn’t “understand the commercial drivers” of businesses. Key issues were:

Changes and solutions

The following solutions were suggested by participants:

381 Lord Burns, Lord Forsyth of Drumlean (Chairman), Baroness Harding of Winscombe, Lord Layard and Lord Turnbull.

382 Lord Forsyth, Lord Sharkey, Lord Layard, Lord Turnbull, Lord Tugendhat and Baroness Harding.

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