Posted : 11 months ago by Samuel Taylor

SENSE AND SUSTAINABILITY: Advancing apprenticeships for social mobility and sustainable development

SENSE AND SUSTAINABILITY: Advancing apprenticeships for social mobility and sustainable development

Published on FE News on 2nd June 2023, 

Written by Dr Mandy Crawford-Lee, Chief Executive, UVAC and Cerian Ayres, National Head of Technical Education at the Education and Training Foundation (ETF);

Cerian Ayres and Mandy Crawford-Lee examine the need to embed sustainability across apprenticeships, skills and work-based learning. They highlight the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals as a framework for integrating sustainability into the apprenticeship, vocational, technical and professional education system, and explore the opportunities for promoting productivity, social mobility and widening participation.

The policy and practice sphere of technical, vocational and higher education, skills and work-based learning – including apprenticeships – has become increasingly complex in the last few years. The extent to which sustainability and sustainable development are embedded in the policy and practice spaces is now an important area to explore.

The previous article in this series explored the need to raise standards in the delivery of apprenticeships. In this article we’ll look more broadly at the benefits of the further education (FE) and skills sector and explore the potential for:

  • Greater integration of sustainable development into skills, apprenticeships and work-based learning policy and practice;
  • The creation of inclusive workplaces, promoting social mobility;
  • A balanced approach to productivity, health and well-being;
  • Embedding educational approaches and methods which promote greater equality in the world of work.

We’ll look at the key questions relating to sustainability in FE, higher education (HE), and skills focused inquiries, and the call for raising the stakes in sustainable development of apprenticeships, skills, and work-based learning.

Reform for growth

Despite considerable political change and turmoil in recent years – not to mention the pandemic – the UK government has forged ahead with educational and skills reform in England, shaking up the national picture with a view to generating longer-term growth. Apprenticeships and ‘returnerships’ (discussed in more detail below) are central to this shake-up and the UK’s ambition for growth.

However, there is growing evidence of concern about the sustainability of reforms in this landscape, including the potential regression in human rights and equality, with persistent talk about the potential for the UK to exit the European Convention on Human Rights, and concern for equalities in the education and ‘skills’ supply chain.

The FE and skills sector has an ability to effect change here. We’ve got considerable ‘convening power’, links to local and national government and deeply embedded relationships with industry and employers. Colleges, independent training providers (ITPs), higher education institutions (HEIs) and workplaces can raise the game on sustainability and sustainable development in the policy and practice sphere of apprenticeships, skills and lifelong learning.

But where do we start?

The UN Sustainable Development Goals

It makes sense to start with the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). Using the 17 SDGs as a framework, we can further integrate notions of responsibility and sustainability into apprenticeship workplace learning programmes.

Both policy makers and practitioners need to respond to contemporary challenges – including the SDGs – across the apprenticeship, vocational, technical, and professional education system. That system continues to undergo reform and unprecedented change, including the introduction of T Levels; the infrastructure build, including institutes of technology (IOTs); the review of technical/technician level education at Level 4 (Certificate of HE) and Level 5 (Foundation Degree); and the review of post-18 education, including higher education tuition fees.

These systematic reforms have placed particular emphasis on the content of technical qualifications and alternatives to traditional, full-time, three-year degree programmes. The reforms promote varying fee levels and demonstrate the value added of different HE courses, including higher and degree apprenticeships. Yet, more work is needed on the sustainable development of workforces, organisations and wider economies. We need to promote key areas beyond economic focus to generate a more balanced societal growth.

Higher and degree apprenticeships

An early and welcome aspect of the rise in higher and degree apprenticeships was the impact on the social mobility agenda and increasing numbers of women entering STEM occupations. These first indications were contrary to the concern that degree apprenticeships would be dominated by the middle classes or by young people with greater social, cultural and economic capital.

From a UVAC perspective, we’d like to see a move to a position where apprenticeships are seen as an aspirational choice for young people and adults from all backgrounds. This is a marker of success. With degree apprenticeships, HEIs and their partners are disrupting – for the better – some of the social structures that have dominated the educational system for centuries. They are challenging the notion of a division between being ‘academic’ and ‘vocational’. Indeed, the scale and extent of university involvement so far has created a far more holistic focus on being occupationally competent.

From a social mobility standpoint, the argument is clear cut: lower-level intermediate apprenticeships help many young people enter the labour market. However, if apprenticeships are to make a major contribution to social mobility, we still need to see clearer work-based progression routes to higher level occupations, ideally through higher and degree apprenticeships.

The apprenticeship levy was primarily introduced to enhance business productivity and increase social mobility. Employers’ direct investment in apprenticeships should be encouraged and conducted on this basis. Should not the ambition of the apprenticeship system be an employer-funded, debt-free route through apprenticeships to the professions, allowing learners (particularly from disadvantaged backgrounds and underserved groups) to earn while they learn?

The opportunities are, without doubt, challenging and substantial. We should be committed to supporting the higher education sector to develop and grow higher and degree apprenticeships and to respond to the government’s recent degree apprenticeship growth calls. The England-wide apprenticeship market is also seeing both ITPs and FE colleges developing their presence in the higher and degree apprenticeship market. The skills sector more broadly can, and should, embrace this development and be at the forefront of developing the skills needed by the national economy and to the benefit of social mobility.


The UK government’s March 2023 budget introduced a new concept – ‘returnerships’ – to the educational skills landscape. ‘Returnerships’ repackaged and brought together skills bootcamps, apprenticeships and sector-based work academy programmes (SWAPs) aimed at the over 50s, directly addressing one of the UK’s notable economic problems post-pandemic: an exodus from the labour market representing a significant loss of both capacity and skills.

Encouraging and supporting those people to return to work is an opportunity for both individuals and for the sector, communities and businesses – and it’s funded too. ‘Returnerships’ bring with them £63.2m of additional funding for skills bootcamps and SWAPs and – from 2025 – eligible individuals will be able to access ‘Lifelong Learning Entitlement’ loans of up to £37,000 to support upskilling and retraining.

This is more change for the sector to respond to – but it’s a positive change, and change that supports social inclusion and sustainability.

Embedding sustainability

As the landscape for FE and skills continues to develop, we must recognise that embedding sustainability and sustainable development into education is a crucial dimension of what it means to be a professional, and to contribute to society. In relation to the apprenticeship levy, although the currently bounded freedom of organisations is valued in terms of training and development expenditure, could certain sustainability learning or outcomes be valued more than others?

This would echo other actual or proposed policy changes working through the political sphere, such as policy related to the banning of fossil fuel cars or payback arrangements for consumers when they return items for the purpose of recycling. Such moves reflect the role of new and disruptive forms of critical reflection that are so important to sustainability and sustainable development.

Not long ago, the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (CIPD) released a Manifesto for Work outlining its belief that people must be placed “at the heart of business thinking and practice”. The report stated the “need to invest in [people], engage them, and lead from the principle that good work is purposeful, good work is safe, inclusive and good for our well-being, and that good work exists for the long-term benefit of individuals, organisations and society”.

Equally, the United Nations noted that “multiple voices and solidarity are the success ingredients for global action” following the Global Festival of Action for Sustainable Development in 2018, which saw 1,500 participants come together from more than 100 countries. UVAC agrees with the CIPD and the United Nations, and to this end, sees a number of promising directions we can pursue.

Firstly, we need to export and promote degree apprenticeships as a way of embedding knowledge within the workplace beyond the England apprenticeship system. Although, the commitment to developing inclusive workplaces and spaces for apprentices needs to be recognised and developed.

Secondly, from a social mobility perspective, higher and degree apprenticeships that provide a debt free route to the professions and higher-level occupations for under-represented groups must be a priority.

Thirdly, apprenticeship and skills funding should be allocated where it will have most impact on raising productivity and opening new progression routes to professional and higher-level occupational roles. This must include occupations that have not previously been encompassed by apprenticeships – although the pursuit of productivity does not, and should not, take precedent over the health and well-being of the current or future workforces.

Finally, where new gateways to the professions for under-represented cohorts of learners are created, embedding forms of critical reflection and action that are particularly adept at spotting and addressing inequalities in the workplace should be valued and prioritised. We should commit to making this aspiration part of what it means to contribute as a professional in any vocation.

Sustainable apprenticeships: royal approval

The national commitment to apprenticeships was marked by the recognition of six ‘sustainable apprenticeships’ to honour His Majesty The King’s Coronation in May.

They are: 

  • Countryside Worker (Level 2)
  • Forest Craftsperson Level 3)
  • Low Carbon Heating Technician (Level 3)
  • Installation Electrician and Maintenance Electrician (Level 3)
  • Sustainability Business Specialist (Level 7)
  • Corporate Responsibility and Sustainability Practitioner (Level 4)

In tandem with the ‘returnerships’ initiative, and the advancing economic focus on green skills and net-zero, these apprenticeships will fly a ‘Royal Standard’ for socially-inclusive, green, life-long learning opportunities in UK Plc.

Final words

Within the SDGs framework, apprenticeship development can take place across several themes and institutional boundaries: between FE, HE and ITPs (including new types of institutions); between practical training and academic learning; between new and old methodologies of reflective practice and pedagogy; between different levels and types of qualification; between different quality regimes and systems of funding; and across matters of productivity, skills, social mobility and widening participation.

In our view, a future in which we see the widest possible engagement in apprenticeships and the technical and professional skills system – by all provider types and sizes – is possible if the UK government ensures employers remain central to developments and unhindered in deciding where to invest in workforce development.

If the government commits to the apprenticeship reforms as intended, further and higher education institutions can continue to play a pivotal role in ensuring apprenticeships open-up and support progression to professional and more highly paid occupations for those who have not always had such opportunities. Only then can the two main drivers of apprenticeships — raising productivity and enhancing social mobility — be realised.

Signposting to sustainability learning content and emerging pedagogical perspectives, including in areas of social innovation and social change work, can only be a good thing. Nevertheless, we still need to do more to raise the game on integrating sustainability and sustainable development into the vocational and educational landscapes across England, to take leaps in creating sustainable futures for all involved (as well as those not yet involved). We know, and you know, it makes good sense to do so.

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