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Degree apprenticeships offer a new path to secure graduate employment

Employers are desperate for more technical and professional education at degree level. Claire Buckland outlines the opportunities and challenges in delivering degree apprenticeships on a large scale.
This article is more than 5 years old

Claire is Head of Uni@Work, part of Coventry University Group. Uni@Work is a national provider of Higher Education in the workplace.

Robert Halfon, the new apprenticeships and skills minister, has recently declared the expansion of apprenticeships as at the heart of delivering social justice in the UK. Secure and fulfilling employment is increasingly difficult to find for young people, graduates and non-graduates alike; few feel loyalty or attachment towards their first employers.

The millennial generation is an increasing proportion of the workforce. according to a recent report by PricewaterhouseCoopers. Millennials will form 50 per cent of the global workforce by 2020, and workplace retention is an important consideration for many employers. According to the Deloitte Millennial Survey 2016: “Two-thirds of millennials express a desire to leave their organisations by 2020. Businesses must adjust how they nurture loyalty among millennials or risk losing a large percentage of their workforces.” The survey also found that: “… the ability to progress and take on a leadership role is one of the most important drivers when evaluating job opportunities.”

One way to develop future leaders and build loyalty is to offer a workplace degree. In England these are typically two-thirds funded by government, and the apprenticeship levy will be a new source of funding for degree apprenticeships from April 2017.


Uni@Work, part of the Coventry University Group, delivers higher and degree apprenticeships in partnership with the Skills Funding Agency. All programmes are delivered in the workplace, and are tailored to employers’ individual business requirements and cultures, together with the needs and preferences of their learners.

Learning on a degree apprenticeship is a blend of face-to-face, online and self-directed study, further supported by the sponsoring organisation’s managers. Uni@Work tutors conduct regular one-to-one sessions and are contactable out of hours as required. There are no examinations and learning is assessed through a portfolio of evidence, presentations, professional discussions and reports. Learners acquire professional accreditation alongside their academic qualifications, which are awarded by Coventry University.

Our clients see work-based learning as an effective  solution to the need to develop, and most critically retain, the best talent. For instance, the Chartered Manager Degree Apprenticeship, developed in partnership with the Chartered Management Institute (CMI), is being used by one employer as a succession strategy to enable a smooth transition between Generation X leaders and millennials (aged 18-34) who will take their place.

Since the confirmation of the apprenticeship levy, employers have wanted to talk to us about how they can include higher level learning in their existing personal development programmes, and rebadge these programmes into apprenticeships. The levy has given learning providers and employers the opportunity to develop and improve existing programmes. However, the introduction of the levy, and the accompanying digital apprenticeship service account, will not be without challenges. The uncertainty caused by Brexit and the movement of skills policy to DfE has delayed the confirmation of critical details, but the levy’s introduction is now only eight months away.

Challenges for degree apprenticeships

The greatest challenge in setting up Uni@Work has been turning traditional models of higher education upside down. We are delivering degree-level education in the workplace to learners in full-time employment, rather than to full or part-time students in the classroom. Colleagues who are used to delivering higher education in more traditional ways have sometimes found it difficult to adapt.

To take one example, the focus of marketing to prospective students must be different. We do not need to recruit learners directly; Uni@Work learners are either recruited by, or are already working for, the employers with whom we develop a higher education programme. Unlike traditional higher education programmes where universities must court students, our main audience is employers. Our model is developed on business to business rather than business to customer marketing, and directed primarily at corporate learning and development and HR professionals. This is a very different marketing audience to that to whom universities are used to talking. Universities seeking to deliver higher level apprenticeships must be willing to engage in adaptable, flexible partnerships with employers, and operate in a very different working culture.

Because learning is delivered off-campus, identifying suitable learning environments on employers’ premises and engaging tutors to teach in them is also a challenge. Although we are based in Coventry, our clients are spread across the country, so this presents particular challenges in ensuring our tutors are able to deliver our programmes in a variety of locations.

Apprenticeships are slowly moving from the old system of ‘frameworks’ towards new ‘standards’ that provide criteria for quality and design. In the past few years over 1300 employers have been involved in developing new standards to match a range of occupations. However, only 213 new apprenticeship standards have actually been published, of which 40 per cent are focused on higher and degree apprenticeships. There is an urgent need for industry to get involved to increase the number and range of standards. This needs to be addressed by the government.

Young people’s awareness about higher level apprenticeships is growing, but needs to be raised further. There is a widespread sharp drop-off in study and training after level 3 which needs to be tackled, and not enough young people are being supported to consider higher level apprenticeships as an alternative to traditional degrees or immediately entering work.

Our experience at Coventry is that the workplace learning model works, with close to a 100 per cent pass rate. Many learners improve their job status on graduation. This comment from a recent graduate is typical of graduates:

“Where do I start? I have learnt so much and this programme has inspired me to continue with my development and academic learning. This direct learning from the course has been applied in my everyday job functions but also assisted me in a promotion. This promotion has been the first of its kind to a non – operational fire fighter so I see myself as a little revolutionary. My confidence has grown immensely and I have now got experiences in areas that would never have been possible without undertaking this leadership degree.”

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