Helping everyone get the most out of degree apprenticeships

Degree apprenticeships are a success story. Universities have shown that they can create innovative new provision within challenging timescales – even where policy is still being developed and the regulatory infrastructure is being put in place.

The first nine degree apprenticeship programmes were rolled out in 2015: three years later, there are more than 35 standards approved with a further 70 in development. Although a relatively small part of the whole apprenticeship programme, they are the fastest growing. In a demand-led system, employers and students are voting with their feet.

Degree apprenticeships also help government achieve its policy objectives, and help modern civic universities to achieve their mission. They strengthen relationships between universities and employers, and create a new route (which may be particularly attractive to disadvantaged students) into higher education. They at least partially address the decline in part-time learning by mature students since – by definition – they are studied while working and lend themselves to sub-degree exit qualifications at Levels 4 and 5 (such as HNCs and HNDs), the decline of which appears to be correlated with the decline in part-time students.

Development under pressure

But why do interactions between universities and the apprenticeship establishment feel so fraught? Some of it can be put down to the pressures on both sides. The government has to demonstrate to employers that the very significant funds raised by the apprenticeship levy will be well spent, to voters that the target of 3 million starts by 2020 will be met, and that the knotty problem of making the apprenticeship programme work for SMEs will be solved. Universities have to put their reputations, recruitment targets and relationships with employers on the line as they seek to develop programmes – without knowing if standards will be approved, or SMEs will be able to access funding to pay for the apprentices they have recruited. It’s high stakes all round. But both government and universities have been in this situation before and know that, with good will, good communication, and a little faith, things will be sorted out.

It is, however, difficult for universities to have faith when there is still some policy uncertainty about the purpose of degree apprenticeships within the apprenticeship programme and the wider tertiary education system.

From “equal in esteem” to occupational value

One example is the internal tension between wanting apprenticeships to be part of a technical pathway that is both equal in esteem to, but also different from, BTECs or A-Levels followed by an undergraduate degree. For some “equal in esteem” can only be achieved by getting the most prestigious universities to offer apprenticeships. Since their prestige generally comes from the quality and volume or their research, this does not necessarily make them well-equipped to deliver the innovative work-based learning that would make the technical route genuinely different.

On the other hand, it should mean that universities with a long history of strength in technical and professional education are extremely well-placed to deliver degree apprenticeships and – indeed – these universities are embracing the programme. They can, however, come up against a different issue. The 2012 Richard Review, which was largely looking at apprenticeships at Levels 2 and 3 (equivalent to GCSE and A-level), was concerned at the plethora of poorly understood vocational qualifications that were being included in apprenticeships, confusing students and employers. It suggested that the apprenticeship itself should be the qualification. The Institute for Apprenticeships, as it begins to streamline the programme across levels, has made it clear that a Level 6 apprenticeship standard may now only include a degree if certain conditions are met.

The conditions are fairly wide-ranging. A degree can be included if it is a regulatory requirement, a requirement set by a professional body or the lack of a degree award would strongly disadvantage the apprentice in the labour market. Nevertheless, it is a step towards a world where a degree apprenticeship could deliver occupational competence but not the wider educational benefits of a degree and is intended to protect against making occupations that did not previously require a degree into graduate-only professions.

Occupational competence and beyond

This comes up against universities’ belief in the value of their core product. They offer education beyond occupational competence. Their graduates should develop not only course specific knowledge but curiosity that drives future learning and the ability to think creatively and reflectively. Degree courses should enable a student to develop these attributes – and so should degree apprenticeships. Why not signal this through a degree award?

There are also two practical issues with this. Some emergent industries do not yet have accrediting professional bodies to set the requirement for a degree and it could become very confusing for students, who may find in the future that some apprenticeships include degrees and others don’t, even if they lead to the same occupation, depending on bespoke arrangements between employers and providers.

A third area of tension is how many apprenticeships should be delivered at each level. The availability of apprenticeships at lower levels is important to prevent people who don’t get on with classroom-based learning from dropping out of education before they have a solid skills base. Early evidence suggests that employers are choosing to spend their money on higher and degree level apprenticeships and this may increase as more standards are developed.

This worried the Skills Minister enough for her to express concerns about “a middle class grab” on the apprenticeship programme. In fact the data is not currently presented in a way that enables us to understand the social background of people undertaking degree apprenticeships – but her point is really whether an employer-led system will tackle the problem of too many people with low skills. This, together, with an apprenticeship target that will be easier to deliver if more people start shorter, cheaper lower level apprenticeships leaves universities worrying that a policy change many make it hard for them to recoup their investment in degree apprenticeships.

Today Robert Halfon MP will repeat his call for as many of half of new entrants to university to be on higher and degree apprenticeship programmes. There is much to recommend this idea but it will only be achieved if universities are confident that the government really is committed to degree apprenticeships. They could start with a really clear statement of how they will manage the various tensions inherent in the programme.

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