Degree apprenticeship challenges in Wales

How should Wales rocket boost degree apprenticeships – and who should pay for them?

Michael Salmon is News Editor at Wonkhe

At the end of last week, Hefin David (a Welsh Labour MS) delivered a report into transitions to employment, which included a set of recommendations for boosting degree apprenticeships.

In an appearance at the economy committee today, minister Vaughan Gething was reluctant to pre-empt further discussion of the report, which will take place in the Senedd at a later date. But he recognised the challenges around gender balance on such courses in Wales – female students currently only make up 14 per cent of the cohort (“providers recognise that they need to widen participation,” we were informed).

An evaluation back in February showed a similar picture to that seen elsewhere in the UK – broad support among students and other stakeholders, tempered by lack of understanding and uptake among employers, and challenges with cost. If anything the landscape in Wales is even more constrained than in England (proportional to size), with particular apprenticeship frameworks dominated by particular universities. For example, 43 per cent of degree apprentices enrolled on the engineering and advanced manufacturing framework were enrolled with the University of Wales Trinity Saint David. The public sector also plays an outsize role.

Hefin David’s report comes on the heels of a target of creating 125,000 apprenticeships by the end of this Senedd being pushed back by one year due to budget pressure. The last substantive set of recommendations came prior to the creation of the Commission for Tertiary Education and Research (CTER), and there’s a clear hope that the pan-tertiary commission will be able to drive growth of provision and uptake.

Highlighted in the report are two particular challenges – a lack of “vertical integration”, with apprenticeships at lower levels not particularly harmonious with what programmes are available at levels 6 and 7, seen as an obstacle to learner progression. David recommends CTER being given a clear remit to develop new frameworks that connect further and higher education.

The larger challenge is around funding. The Welsh government has previously been clear that costs of degree apprenticeships it funds are aligned with tuition fees for full time undergraduates. Evidence presented for the report suggested making employers contribute, either a 50-50 split with government financing, or a (likely controversial) 25-25 split with the other half paid by apprentices themselves through student loans. NUS Wales already spoke out against this.

A problem here is how the Welsh system interacts with the UK government’s apprenticeship levy. A proportion of what the Treasury takes in is awarded to Wales through Barnett consequentials – “significantly less than the amount generated through the levy,” according to the report. There’s also the risk here that employers who operate UK-wide may balk at being asked to contribute “again” to the apprentices they work with in Wales.

The report stops short of recommending a solution, kicking the can to the government for further evaluation and consultation over costing and funding models, saying “the share of the burden on the public sector, employees and employers needs to be considered in the context of the long-term value gained.” A perennial wicked problem across higher education, unfortunately for them.

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