Many universities are still grappling with how best to integrate apprenticeships into their wider provision. When students are spending the majority of their time at their workplace, how can a university ensure it provides them an authentic academic experience?
Since the introduction of apprenticeship standards in 2017, the number of degree level apprenticeships has grown steadily, representing 13.1 per cent – 37,800 – of all apprenticeship starts in the first three quarters of the 2021-22 academic year, a 10.3 per cent increase on the previous year.
Having recently left a school with no apprenticeship provision to become dean of the school of built environment and architecture at London South Bank University (LSBU) – which teaches around two-thirds of the institution’s 2600+ apprentices – the question of how to create a genuine academic experience for degree apprenticeship students is one that I have been spending a significant amount of time pondering over the last few weeks.
Box of issues
Firstly, there is an institutional-level issue to consider. The government has been urging universities to treat their students as customers even before founding OfS back in 2018. If we accept this premise, it follows that apprentices – and in particular their employers – are likely a university’s most savvy consumers.
Rather than paying for their studies through an income contingent loan, employers are funding their apprentices’ training directly through levy contributions and will expect the same high level of service that they would from any B2B supplier.
Therefore, if an apprentice or employer complains about an element of the academic experience – for example a lack of one-to-one support – it may well indicate a wider institutional issue that other “traditional” students may not have had the confidence or awareness to raise.
The models of apprenticeship provision differ from university to university, and each has its drawbacks. Some institutions use block release – either alternate weeks study and working or multi-week segments of learning every several months – and depending on how this is managed it can create a sense of separation between the apprentice and their university, employer or both.
Some providers use an online-only model and, while this may be useful in helping an apprentice fit their learning around their work, it can also contribute to a sense of isolation.
LSBU presently uses a day-release model, where our apprentices come in one day per week. While this ensures regular in person contact with their lecturers, it also poses its own issues. Principally, apprentices have a heavy schedule during their day on campus. This means they can feel cut off from their full time counterparts with whom they share some lectures, and it also gives them little opportunity to spend time with their apprentice colleagues on different courses as a distinct cohort.
Feels like home
Although we already have a dedicated “home” for our apprentices (The Passmore Centre), in an attempt to help foster a sense of belonging, it is clear that we need to do more to overcome these issues.
One way would be by having a bespoke approach for apprentices. Rather than finding ways to integrate them into our existing lecture schedule – we could plan their time on campus in such a way that it provides the entirety of an authentic university experience within the space of one day.
This would include putting an emphasis on smaller, interactive sessions and seminars and potentially moving content, such as some lectures, online so that apprentices have time for social activities and group study sessions – as well as providing specific extramural activities so they can meet their peers from other courses.
Finally, we need to develop a way to capture and authentically respond to our apprentices’ feedback in a way which is meaningful and accounts for the specificities of their programme.
The needs of apprentices are genuinely different to those of full-time students and arguably the challenges they face are more complex and bound up in work and family life compared to “traditional” students. We have certainly found that the responses we receive from the National Student Survey and from Rate My Apprenticeship illuminate very different elements of the apprenticeship experience.
Despite the policy flux seen elsewhere, the government has shown no signs of wavering in its enthusiasm for apprenticeships. Given that the number of apprentices is likely to continue rising year on year, I would invite other institutions to share the challenges they face in seeking to provide an authentic academic experience for their apprentices and the ways they have attempted to overcome it.