A Meritocracy of Experience: Apprenticeships as the ‘Practical Solution’?

A Meritocracy of Experience: Apprenticeships as the ‘Practical Solution’?

Angus McVittie

This article considers the themes of Young’s book The Rise of the Meritocracy [1] alongside an analysis of UK national newspaper coverage of apprenticeships and undergraduate degrees. Young presents a world in which IQ testing sorts the future workforce into roles suited to personal aptitude, a vision in which the legitimacy of ‘academic knowledge’, or at least the ability to perform well in standardised tests, is taken for granted as key to defining IQ + effort and thus merit. I argue that changes to the UK economy and education system have created a situation in which this taken-for-granted equating of academic prowess with merit has been challenged, as employers, rather than academics, are increasingly empowered to define ‘merit’.

In the UK, participation in higher education has transitioned from elite to mass provision, with significant expansion following the 1992 Further and Higher Education Act. While having emancipatory potential, this expansion has not been mirrored by proportionate labour market growth. The predicted emergence of a knowledge economy with high skill jobs fell short of expectations, and supply of graduate labour began to outweigh demand. Unable to secure what were traditionally thought of as ‘graduate jobs,’ graduates spread into other areas of the labour market and into jobs which do not require the skill nor offer the financial rewards of traditional graduate posts. The current climate is one in which young people must battle to stand out from the crowd, with labour market security a guarantee for only a small minority. These issues, combined with tuition fees that now exceed £9,000 per year, create a situation where in England higher education costs much but seems to promise relatively little.

With questions intensifying about the once taken-for-granted value of higher education, apprenticeships are increasingly presented by government as the alternative. Apprenticeships are work-based learning programmes which incorporate a formal structured learning component and have been a feature of work-based learning in England since at least the 1600s. In their most recent incarnation, apprenticeships have been seen as a catch-all means to tackle youth unemployment, qualification inflation and the increased cost of higher education. Following their 2015 electoral victory the Conservative party used the Queen’s speech to set out a target of creating 3 million new apprenticeships by 2020 and sought to continue a process of rebranding apprenticeships as a valid alternative to higher education.

Doing so has been no mean feat, however, with vocational education in the UK historically viewed as second best to university and associated with schemes which gained a reputation for being ‘training without jobs’ [2]. While historically apprenticeships lasted seven years or more and were offered in a limited number of industries, today apprenticeships typically last between one and two years and are offered in just about every profession. Despite the existence of apprenticeships at varying levels from GCSE to Master’s equivalent, the vast majority are lower level 2 or 3 qualifications. In some cases, representing short and dubious training, scholars note examples of poor quality apprenticeships and concerns that many new ‘apprenticeships’ are in roles in which little training is actually required. Other concerns have also been raised, such as the misuse of provision by large companies who benefit from reclassifying existing employees as apprentices, a practice which has likely contributed to creating a situation in which the majority of apprentices are in fact over 24 years of age [3].

In my recent MA research, I sought to gain insight into public perceptions of undergraduate degrees and apprenticeships through an analysis of their presentation in UK newspaper coverage from 2016. The data provides some interesting points for a consideration of contemporary perspectives on ‘merit’. It also shows that media representation of apprenticeships today differs markedly from their previous poor reputation, benefiting from their marketing as an alternative to university education and its associated high fees, debt and decreased labour market value.

In the coverage analysed, journalists saw education as a ‘choice’ for young people. There was an assumption that this choice was made with a focus on labour market outcomes. Arguments presented by journalists were therefore often for or against a particular educational trajectory, based on a calculation of labour market returns against potential cost. A recognition of the increasing cost of a university degree, and decreasing prospects for graduates, often saw higher education cast in a poor light:

In this new world of tuition fees and debt, children and their parents have been assured that degrees earn big salaries. At the same time, voters have been told that higher education brings social mobility. Both claims have been made far too broadly – and the losers are those now coming out of university with 50 grand owing to the student loan company, a socking great overdraft, and the discovery that internships and coffee shops are the only prospects (Chakrabortty, 2016).

While fees were certainly a factor, a central issue was the question of how knowledge developed at university would serve young people when they transitioned to the workplace. In keeping with traditional notions of merit, ‘elite’ universities, in particular Oxford and Cambridge, were still referred to with reverence in many articles; equated with intellect and achievement, their graduates’ labour market prospects secure. However, the value of higher education beyond institutions at the top of league tables was significantly challenged. Particular courses and institutions were deprecated based on claims of poor labour market returns due to a perceived lack of relevance to work. Such presentations were contrasted with apprenticeships, which were seen as providing potential to develop ‘real world,’ ‘hands-on experience’ that will work ‘on the job’ and crucially lead into work without the burden of student debt:

(There is) no doubt that an Oxbridge Degree opens many gilded doors. But studying urban dance at Peckham University or media studies at the University of Scunthorpe is another story entirely (Nelson, 2016).

Recognition of the de facto devaluation of degrees will only devalue them further, to the point where some school-leavers will decide, like my son, not to bother with student life but instead crack on with gaining hands-on experience of work and a head start on their peers [4].

Although small in scale, my research demonstrated a mode of merit dominated not by IQ but by labour market potential. The major difference between present-day newspaper discourse and the vision of educational elitism presented in Young’s work is the subordination of the academy, seemingly so cherished in his model. Tuition fees have created a situation in which education for education’s sake seems a self-indulgent luxury. Instead, young people are encouraged to think of learning as an investment in which they must make ‘smart’ decisions to earn returns. Abstract academic prowess is abandoned in favour of ‘real world’, or rather workplace, experience.

Crucially, the coverage showed a taken-for-granted acceptance of employers’ power to make demands of the education system, to define what should be taught, and to cherry-pick those prospective employees who require the least additional training in a system in which the burden of paying for education and training is placed on the individual or the state. In this view, the academy is not, as in Young’s work, in a partnership with the economy to drive forward a ‘better’ society; rather, it is in a position of servitude in which it must tend to the wishes of employers to assure the employment of its graduates. Even the most elite academic institutions have not escaped this pressure, their elite status hinging on their graduates’ ‘employability’.

The challenge presented to academic elitism risks its replacement with something more insidious. The seemingly pragmatic logic does not dispute the idea that some are better than others, but rather asks them to ‘prove it’ in the workplace. It is presented in some of the coverage analysed as an opportunity for upward social mobility, rewarding those who have the practical acumen to ‘really get things done’ instead of reproducing privilege and intellectual elitism. But in reality, such discourse poses little challenge to inequality (Smith). Sorting individuals based on what hands-on experience they’ve had will maintain present injustice, as access to experiences and opportunities remain fundamentally differentiated by factors such as class, gender, ethnicity and disability. Instead, the newspaper discourse draws on notions of ‘educational choice,’ suggesting a situation in which the individual is no longer limited by their IQ but rather by their in/ability to make the right decision.  It paints a picture of a situation in which all are in charge of their own destiny. The ‘losers’ end up indebted with poor career prospects, and the winners are those who can get a head start on their peers.

[1] Young, M. (2017) The Rise of the Meritocracy. London: Routledge. 2nd ed.
[2] Finn (1987) in Allen, M. (2016) Another Great Training Robbery or a Real Alternative for Young People? Research and Comment on Apprenticeships at the start of the 21st Century. Radical Books.
[3] Allen, M. (2016) Another Great Training Robbery or a Real Alternative for Young People? Research and Comment on Apprenticeships at the start of the 21st Century. Radicaled Books.
[4] Crampton, R. (2016) ‘Why a Degree is No Longer a Must in The Workplace’, The Times (London). 19.01.2016


Angus McVittie is a PhD student at Newcastle University. His ESRC-funded PhD considers undergraduate degrees and apprenticeships from the perspectives of young people from working class backgrounds. Angus can be followed on twitter @AngusMcvittie.

Image: Angus McVittee