After all the talk of “middle-class land grabs” last summer, it was great to see Michelle Donelan promote degree apprenticeships as a key means to deliver on levelling-up.
The minister sent a clear signal about how important degree apprenticeships are to the government’s agenda.
She asked the Office for Students to rewrite Access and Participation Plans to
strongly encourage providers to set themselves ambitious, measurable targets to significantly increase the proportion of students on higher and degree apprenticeships
This fits with the broader aim to ensure that people who study with universities secure “good” outcomes, given that students undertaking degree apprenticeships are necessarily employed and typically working towards professional jobs on completion.
More 50 per cent targets
Furthermore, in response to the proposal from the Chair of the Education Select Committee, Robert Halfon, that the department should introduce a target of 50 per cent of students on degree apprenticeships, the Minister also indicated that she was exploring financial incentives for universities to offer more degree apprenticeships.
Not since the government’s Degree Apprenticeship Development Fund (2016-18) has there been such a clear indication that universities need to get on board in expanding opportunities through degree apprenticeships.
The Institute for Apprenticeships and Technical Education (IfATE) also warmly welcomed these positive noises.
Jenifer Coupland, Chief Executive of the Institute said:
Employers tell us they are crying out for higher level technical skills and that degree apprenticeships are great for their organisations. Lots of employers – particularly in traditional white collar professions – want a more diverse talent pipeline.
It is not so long ago that IfATE’s attitude to growing the number of degree apprenticeships was not so warm – and it was challenging for employers to get degree apprenticeships approved in the form they considered best met their needs.
A new style of degree apprenticeship
Happily, the mood has changed significantly as demonstrated by the significant reforms that the Institute is introducing to the model of degree apprenticeships.
The five reforms are:
- Amending the mandatory qualifications policy to better support graduate-entry occupations
- Integration of on-the-job and off-the-job training
- Alignment between apprenticeship knowledge, skills and behaviours and degree learning outcomes
- Integration of assessment
- Requiring participation of an independent assessor with occupational expertise
The Institute reported that responses to a consultation on the proposed reforms from a wide range of organisations including employers, representative bodies and higher education institutions, indicated high levels of support for the proposals.
The changes will be introduced between March and September 2022. The development of the new model emerged from sustained collaborative working between the Institute, higher education and employer representatives over many months and testifies to the fact that highly positive outcomes can be achieved where this approach is taken.
It is worth noting that the reform of the mandatory qualifications policy, in particular, signals a significant shift that will remove some of the bureaucratic barriers which had seen the development of new degree apprenticeships plateau in recent years.
This change is extremely well timed to encourage universities to further engage and collaborate with employers to develop the degree apprenticeships they say they need and shift the balance towards the proportional growth the minister is seeking.
Getting the definitions right
However, one thing is missing if the desired “levelling up” outcomes for degree apprenticeships are to be realised – a valid and reliable way to measure social mobility impact.
Key measures currently used by OfS are POLAR and Index of Multiple Deprivation (IMD) data sets. POLAR data measures the proportion of young people who enter higher education aged 18-19 years old by postcode area, using historical data.
IMD is the official measure of relative deprivation by ‘lower-layer super output area’ or neighbourhood and it includes seven domains of deprivation: income; employment; health deprivation and disability; education, skills training; crime, barriers to housing and services; living environment.
Neither POLAR or IMD provide any data on the individual socio-economic background of students but are used by OfS as ‘proxy’ measures. The use of a proxy measure assumes that if your postcode indicates a low participation or high deprivation area, then you are more likely to be a member of an under-represented or disadvantaged group and that this is a valid and reliable way to measure social mobility impact.
The trouble with areas
The trouble is, this assumption is false. POLAR and IMD data is known to present a potentially misleading picture regarding under-represented or disadvantaged groups.
For example, POLAR is not a reliable indicator of socio-economic backgrounds in large metropolitan areas, it excludes people over the age of 18-19 and uses historical data from 2009. And IMD produces significant false positive and false negative correlations to family income.
In any case, these proxy data sets do not measure social mobility as understood by the Social Mobility Commission (SMC) as they say nothing about: ‘the link between a person’s occupation or income and the occupation or income of their parents.’
Higher and degree apprenticeships are currently making a social mobility impact but better measures are needed to ensure that the policy to level-up by significantly growing degree apprenticeships is informed by valid and reliable evidence.