APPRENTICE numbers in Oxfordshire have soared in the past two years as university applications from county students have fallen.

The number of apprenticeship placements in Oxfordshire has risen from 3,600 in 2010 to 4,460 in 2012, according to figures from the Cabinet Office.

Meanwhile university applications from 18 and 19-year-olds living in Oxfordshire fell from 4,236 for 2011 entry to 3,685 for entry last year, according to university admissions service UCAS.

The hike in the number of apprenticeships has been linked to the recession and jobs market, higher university tuition fees and publicity about apprenticeships available.

Oxford & Cherwell Valley College business development manager Neil Edwards said the college had doubled the number of places it has for apprentices.

He said that in the 2010/11 academic year around 500 apprentices were trained, but in 2011/12, the figure had more than doubled to 1,070.

He said: “I think we’re starting to see young people who two years ago wouldn’t have thought twice about going to university who are now actively considering whether an apprenticeship is the best route into work for them.

“Another factor is all these massive national discussions about apprenticeships.”

Anyone aged over 16 and not in full-time education can apply for an apprenticeship.

The work-based programmes combine practical training with study and take between one and four years to complete.

Mr Edwards said the college had an average of 11 applications for every place through the National Apprenticeship Vacancy service.

Oxfordshire County Council’s economy and skills officer Paddy Patterson said: “What we’re finding is that the apprenticeship programme as a whole has been growing.

“I think the increased tuition fees are definitely giving young people and the parents of young people something to think about from a financial point of view.

“We don’t have any data to support that but in terms of anecdotal evidence, feedback from individuals and even from companies which are seeing applications from people who would normally have got a university place it definitely seems to be a factor.”

The county’s surge in apprenticeships has been praised by the Deputy Prime Minister.

Nick Clegg said Oxfordshire’s companies were playing a big part in the apprenticeships industry.

He added: “A record number of businesses are taking on apprentices across Oxfordshire – with an extra 1,000 new apprenticeships starting in the last two years. The national number of people has topped half a million.

"We are making it as simple and rewarding for companies to take on apprentices because they are vital to Great British businesses – from mechanical engineering and business administration to dental nursing and physiotherapy.

“Apprentices are at the heart of our drive to make sure firms across Oxfordshire are fit to prosper and compete now and in the future.”

Case studies

1. An apprenticeship has spiced up the life of Dawn Mitchell, who said learning on the job wasn’t just a young person’s game.

The 44-year-old mother-of-four and grandmother-of-two decided to grab life with both hands and get an apprenticeship with the county council.

Now she works in the kitchen at Moulsford Preparatory School, preparing fresh food for pupils every day.

She said: “I’ve always worked in the catering industry, in pub kitchens, and I even ran my own pub for a while, but I was always self-taught.

“When I heard about the scheme I thought ‘hey, why not?’ because you’re never too old to get some qualifications behind you.”

Mrs Mitchell, who lives in Ipsden, is now a year-and-a-half in to her time at the school. She will get her level two diploma in food preparation in a month.

She said: “It’s great because it will allow me to go on and do my professional cookery if I want to, but I think I’m going to stick around at the school for a while.

“All the food is prepared from fresh, and I really enjoy it.”

2. Jason Farbridge, 27, is an apprentice in the kitchen at Oxford University’s Oriel College.

Mr Farbridge, from Murcott, near Kidlington, started a one-year NVQ level 2 in practical cookery in October.

He said: “I work in a team of nine staff and we prepare meals for the students and fellows, with dishes including game and venison.

“It’s a good opportunity to learn the trade and get a qualification at the same time and I’m really enjoying it.

“I work five days a week, different shifts, and get paid a salary of about £18,000 a year.”

On Monday Mr Farbridge’s courgette, walnut and cinammon cake won a county council apprentice bake-off.

He added: “I got a £75 Amazon voucher and the chance to work for a day at The Cake Shop in the Covered Market to learn cake decorating.”

3. Jaimee Dawson is a second-year advanced apprentice at the Culham Centre for Fusion Energy at Culham Science Centre.

Yesterday she put the finishing touches to a flange section to be used on the Joint European Torus (JET), the world’s largest magnetic fusion research experiment.

Miss Dawson used a welding torch to sign her name on the flange section.