A year ago, the impact of the decision to regulate the quality of all apprenticeship provision – including degree apprenticeships – via Ofsted inspections was reverberating around the sector.
Ofsted’s inspection evidence and judgements would now form a part of an evidence base to inform oversight and intervention from the Office for Students (OfS) and the Education and Skills Funding Agency (ESFA).
As universities scanned the horizon for signs of Ofsted’s (infamously short notice) announcement of an impending visit, OfS started to develop its own understanding of this growing component of sector delivery. It commissioned research on current practices in the design, delivery, and ongoing quality management of degree apprenticeships. And that report was published – quietly – on Friday.
The research was designed to explore views on what makes for “well-designed” degree apprenticeship programmes and “high-quality” apprentice learner experiences in line with the (then) wording of OfS Regulatory Framework B Conditions. It also set out to explore how universities were using and adapting their internal quality management processes to ensure the quality of their apprenticeship programmes.
I have laid out some of the headline findings for you here, but the full report is certainly worth a closer look – not least to hear the voices of the university representatives, employers and apprentices that informed its findings and conclusions.
More students, more admin
Respondents were unanimous about the importance and transformative potential of degree apprenticeships when based on work integrated learning and assessment. But adapting systems and processes to enable the quality management of provision has proved to be less straightforward – even for institutions with a long history of work-integrated learning.
The aspiration was for processes dealing with degree apprenticeships to draw as much as possible on established quality management processes and teams. However, the different starting points, purposes, and data requirements associated with degree apprenticeships often put paid to this idea.
So universities have had to invest in new teams, systems and processes to augment quality assurance in these cases, as well as the changes needed to facilitate admission to and oversight of these awards. This has included employing Ofsted and ESFA specialists from FE.
One of these specialists noted the very real differences between the language of compliance and inspection in FE, and the culture of peer-review and enhancement that resonated throughout HE. They left the question hanging: “how FE do we want to become?”
Respondents also noted that the combination of Ofsted, ESFA, OfS, and Professional, Statutory, and Regulatory Bodies (PSRB) regulatory expectations and conditions created an overall sense of bureaucratic burden.
Creating external conditions for success
But there was also a sense of optimism from almost everyone who engaged with the research about the new and augmented opportunities degree apprenticeships were providing, including greater opportunities for university-employer partnerships and engagement. This, coupled with the substantial resource commitments made by universities and employers, demonstrates a commitment to and investment in their success.
But several ongoing challenges were also identified. Each challenge requires consideration if the full potential of these awards – for universities, employers, apprentices and regions – is to be realised.
Respondents recounted that the multiple accountabilities associated with apprenticeships were practically and culturally heavy to carry. There was a sense that the sector’s collective energy was balanced towards, and perhaps even driven by, inspection and monitoring requirements.
Refining and co-ordinating external and internal reporting and monitoring – and ensuring clarity about what is expected and from whom – was seen as necessary for universities and their employer partners to be free to focus on the creation, running and enhancement of high-quality provision and learner experiences.
Defining quality, valuing diversity
There is an extremely mixed economy of apprenticeship provision. There are multiple apprenticeship occupational standards and end-point assessments, different university strategic priorities and investments, various types of university-employer partnership arrangement, diverse employment settings, and a range of different professional body accreditation requirements.
Our respondents noted that this diversity should inform external bodies’ understanding of high-quality degree apprenticeships. If this doesn’t happen there is a sense that many of the broader organisational, educational and regional socio-economic benefits (both tangible and intangible) that degree apprenticeships can offer could potentially be lost.
With degree apprenticeships still at a relatively early stage of development in England, there is limited direct understanding of what “good” looks like. Reasonable service level expectations in university-employer partnerships are still being defined. In the absence of established benchmarks, it is important that any evidence-based understanding of what works is aligned with what is practical. This need is further heightened with the introduction of Higher Technical Qualifications (HTQs) – Level 4 and 5 awards based on the same occupational standards as apprenticeships – which will be available in England from September 2022.
With the higher technical education landscape changing and growing quickly, the report calls for a What Works Centre on Higher Technical Education and Skills. The centre would focus on local economic growth, access and participation in higher education, and complement the work of others.
With the changes the sector has gone through, and continues to face, the creation of such a centre is arguably even more relevant than it was when the research was undertaken.