In a regulatory environment where the quality of higher education is measured by student progression outcomes, higher and degree apprenticeships that are specifically designed to result in professional jobs can lead the way in showing how progression can be most effectively achieved.
While institutions have been busily preparing their Teaching Excellence Framework (TEF) submissions, they will have made claims about the extent to which they enable students to progress to managerial and professional employment or further study as a measure of the quality of their provision.
The Office for Students (OfS) has said that:
Low rates of progression into managerial or professional employment and higher-level study destinations commensurate with the qualification they have completed may suggest that a course has not equipped students with knowledge and skills appropriate to their intended learning aims, or that students were not effectively supported to transition into the workplace.
The risks of being deemed non-compliant with OfS condition B3 are significant. But they are significantly diminished where higher education providers are delivering higher and degree apprenticeships that lead to professional jobs.
The apprenticeships difference
All apprenticeships are required to specify knowledge, skills, and behaviours, that determine the standard of occupational/professional competence, set by employers and approved nationally. All higher and degree apprenticeship programmes must specifically develop these knowledge, skills, and behaviours as intended learning outcomes towards the test of occupational/professional competence at the end of the apprenticeship.
More than this, all apprenticeship providers are required to conduct tri-partite (employer, provider, apprentice) reviews to monitor and drive the ongoing progress and development of knowledge, skills and behaviours, every 12 weeks. Providers are also required to evidence that apprentices are engaging in a statutory minimum amount of off-the-job training and Ofsted expects that this is effectively integrated with on-the-job training in partnership with the employer. These specific requirements for the delivery of higher and degree apprenticeships, serve to ensure that student apprentices, who are of course already employed, are effectively supported to progress into their professional roles.
The development of all apprenticeship standards requires that consideration must be given to opportunities for professional recognition and typically, relevant professional bodies will be involved with the development of standards. This means that where occupational/professional competence is aligned with and leads to professional recognition – for example, membership or registration – then this will be a concurrent outcome from the successful completion of an apprenticeship.
For example, the Chartered Manager degree apprenticeship leads to membership of the Chartered Management Institute (CMI) and the Registered Nurse degree apprenticeship leads to registration with the Nursing and Midwifery Council (NMC). In fact, most higher and degree apprenticeships lead to professional recognition and it is arguable that this alone should perhaps be recognised as a positive outcome for student apprentices.
If we consider the public sector, where major staffing shortages are currently negatively affecting all our lives, higher and degree apprenticeships are significantly contributing to the training of police constables and nurses and the positive outcomes for the wider public, as well as for the individual student, are clear to see.
Finally, the Institute for Apprenticeships and Technical Education (IfATE) may have been initially slow in recognising the importance of progression, it is now full steam ahead in promoting progression through the development of “occupational maps”. IfATE has built occupational maps through the employer-led approach used for apprenticeship standards and are applying the same model to develop other non-apprenticeship occupational standards.
By identifying the links between “technical” (levels 2-3), “higher technical” (levels 4-5) and “professional” (levels 6-7) occupations, IfATE has identified the specific apprenticeship and technical education such as higher technical qualification (HTQ) routes by sector to promote progression. This aligns well with the development of the Lifelong Loan Entitlement, expected to be introduced in 2025. The new loan system will provide individuals with funding for the equivalent of four years of education at “higher technical and degree levels (levels 4 to 6).” The idea is that the ways that people can develop “skills for jobs” becomes much more flexible to include anything from individual modules through to full-time programmes delivered by a range of types of provider.
While it is still unclear how universities might be incentivised to accommodate this flexibility, effectively enabling progression through a much broader array of types of provision towards professional jobs will be key to securing good outcomes for students.
Where it’s already working
While universities may yet to be convinced of the value of badging of HTQs (at levels 4 and 5), there are clear examples of how hardwiring progression can work. The great success of the introduction of the level 5 Nursing Associate apprenticeship lies not only in establishing it as an NMC registered occupation but also in how it facilitates progression, via a degree apprenticeship, to become a Registered Nurse.
Health Education England, working with Middlesex University and the Open University, is also currently seeking to join the progression dots by promoting more consistent recognition of the level 3 Senior Healthcare Support Worker apprenticeship for entry to HE nursing programmes. Establishing clear progression routes from level 3 technical occupations through to level 6 registered professions is seen as a key strategy to help healthcare employers address staffing shortages in the sector.
Similarly, in policing, the Police Education Consortium (Middlesex, Portsmouth, Cumbria and Canterbury Christ Church universities) is working to widen progression routes to the Police Constable degree apprenticeship by building in recognition of the level 4 Police Community Support Officer (PCSO) apprenticeship. The work is supported by the national uplift programme (the training of an extra 20k officers) working in liaison with the College of Policing and includes recognising the PCSO and other police roles in terms of prior learning to promote progression. This will provide shortened routes to becoming a professional Police Constable, while contributing to the diversification of the workforce.
The advent of HTQs and the Lifelong Loan Entitlement signal an increasing emphasis on the need for higher education providers to develop and establish flexible ways to accommodate progression. This may provide a glimpse into the future of higher education, where quality is increasingly measured by the extent to which providers are effective in enabling students to progress to professional level jobs in flexible ways that better accommodate diverse life and work circumstances.
While some may baulk against this vision, higher and degree apprenticeships are already demonstrating how professional standards can be comprehensively aligned with degree standards to deliver higher education progression that has measurable benefits for individual students, employers, and wider society.