Apprenticeships should be viewed as valuable a qualification as university degrees, entrepreneur Doug Richard has recommended as part of his radical review of Britain's apprentice system.
In a government-commissioned report, the former star of BBC TV's Dragons' Den and founder of School for Startups said apprenticeships were too often seen as "second class".
The US-born entrepreneur recommended that the system needs to be overhauled so that an "18-year-old who looked at their options and turned down a place at Oxbridge" will happily turn to an apprenticeship as an alternative.
The government has strongly promoted apprenticeship schemes over recent years but Richard said he was concerned about the quality of some schemes. "Simply enough, not all instances of training on a job are apprenticeships," he says.
Apprenticeships should be targeted only at those who are new to a job or role that requires sustained and substantial training, Richard recommends, while government funding should provide the right incentives with funding routed through the employer to ensure relevance and improve quality.
He also suggests funding apprenticeships using tax credits and ensuring that the system is kept simple, especially for small companies.
In addition, all apprentices should reach a good level in English and maths before they can complete their apprenticeship and employers and other organisations should be invited to design and develop new apprenticeship qualifications for their sectors.
Doug Richard said: "No matter who I speak with, everyone agrees that apprenticeships are a good thing – but only when they are 'true' apprenticeships.
"With the myriad of learning experiences which are currently labelled as apprenticeships, we risk losing sight of the core features of what makes apprenticeships work so my conclusion is that we need to look again at what it means to be an apprentice and what it means to offer an apprenticeship as an employer.
"Apprenticeships need to be high quality training with serious kudos and tangible value both to the apprentice and the employer. I want to hear about an 18 year old who looked at their options and turned down a place at Oxbridge to take up an apprenticeship if that is the right path for them. And I want to hear that their parents were thrilled.
"We need to make sure that apprenticeships are the success story they deserve to be."
Business secretary Vince Cable added: "I welcome Doug Richard's review which echoes the government's current thinking on putting employers in the driving seat of our apprenticeship programme. This will be vital to ensure the skills of our workforce fit with employer needs.
"His recommendations will help us to build on the current successes of our apprenticeships programme and tailor a programme which is sustainable, high-quality and meets the changing needs of our economy in the decades to come."
The government will publish a full reponse to the review in the New Year.