Degree apprenticeship revolution shouldn’t be frustrated by one size fits all approach

09 Oct 2017

There was much excitement and interest when the government announced in 2016 that it would invest heavily in skills as part of a new policy on apprenticeships. This, we were told, would provide a kick-start to the development of a new raft of apprenticeship standards, in particular those at levels 4, 5 and 6 to support the need (and employer demand) for people with higher-level skills in the UK workforce.

Creating a ministerial brief for Apprenticeships and Skills demonstrates a strong commitment from the government in driving forward this agenda, and emphasises the priority the new Minister, Anne Milton MP, clearly places on ensuring people from all backgrounds get the opportunities that are right for them.

The need to increase the number of people in the workforce with these skills is pressing, so a renewed focus on this area was welcome. The skills agenda is diverse and varied, and has been a focus of modern universities for years. Working with employers to create and teach work-focused, professional, technical and vocational qualifications is the bedrock of the higher education offered by modern universities. These opportunities enable employers to develop the potential of their employees, provide older learners with routes to access higher education to increase their skills, and ensure people can study part-time in a way that suits their other commitments.

Degree apprenticeships are a natural fit for modern universities. They can unlock the potential of hundreds of thousands of students across the country and create new, innovative relationships between universities and employers to support local economic growth. They are an acknowledgement of the value of professional and technical education and can promote multiple routes for people to progress to higher education and develop the skills employers demand.

Looking at the lead universities that won funding from the Higher Education Funding Council for England (Hefce) for phase one of the Degree Apprenticeships Development Programme, they were overwhelmingly drawn from the modern sector -17 from a total of 18 universities. The second phase announced in October 2017 also demonstrated the strength of the modern sector in driving forward this agenda. And the degree apprenticeships these universities are developing with employers demonstrate the huge breadth of professional and technical education available, including: surveying; cybersecurity; manufacturing; health care; police constables; food engineering; management; and product design. Modern universities are pioneers in this type of provision, and degree apprenticeships are the next stage in employer-focused learning.

If the country is to take maximum benefit from these courses, though, there are a number of areas where improvements could be made.

One issue is the bureaucratic barriers that have been placed in the way. Universities (and, I should specify, other providers) are expected to navigate their way through systems new to them, and that have not been designed with them in mind. Apprenticeships have, traditionally, been considered a level 2-3 further education based offer. The level of administration required by the Education and Skills Funding Agency (ESFA) is unfamiliar to universities used to the far lighter touch applied by Hefce. Universities have encountered significant and ongoing difficulties with a system that is unable (or even unwilling) to flex in order to accommodate different processes and practices. Attempting to force higher education provision into further education delivery mechanisms ignores the obvious differences between the two systems, and undermines the expertise each sector has by assuming they can both simply be treated the same.

There remain the ongoing and repeated problems with the procurement and registration process universities (and other providers) must undergo. In April 2017, the procurement exercise was suspended, meaning that new providers were unable to enter the market. Those that were successful then had funding allocations reduced, meaning they could not deliver the number of apprenticeships required by local employers. For such a flagship policy to fall down on such a delivery basic as being unable to meet the demand stoked up by publicity is disappointing for universities. However, for potential apprentices it can be disastrous as opportunities once promised are either delayed or removed.

There could be greater understanding in the ESFA and the Institute for Apprenticeships about how higher education is delivered. Universities are responsible for their own standards and curricula, and have long-established relationships with employers, developing courses that meet both the necessary educational and professional requirements. Universities have significant expertise and experience of assessing a student against each of these criteria. However, universities are finding that the innovation underpinning the degree apprenticeships they develop with employers seemingly stops when it comes to assessment.

Once again they come under pressure to fit into the way it is done for level 2 and 3 apprenticeships delivered by further education colleges. The diversity of the apprenticeship offer – in terms of levels, employers and standards – is the very definition of one size not fitting all. Arguably, the Institute for Apprenticeships needs to embrace the expertise of employers and providers from all sectors to ensure that the policy fulfils its potential.

Finally, there is the low-level of awareness that surrounds degree apprenticeships. People understand degrees, and they understand apprenticeships. But do they understand how the two come together to create something different and innovative? The initial announcements about the policy focused heavily on skills development and ‘getting a degree without going to university’. However, that significantly underplays the graduate attributes that apprenticeships will acquire, such as teamwork, problem solving, resilience and critical thinking. It ignores the fact that to be successful a degree apprentice will spend a substantial amount of time in a university environment. Far more clarity and precision is needed in the discussion about degree apprenticeships so that those they are designed to appeal to – learners and employers – are certain of what to expect from them and what value they will bring.

This is an exciting time for skills development and Minister Anne Milton has taken on a brief with the potential for huge transformational change. Degree apprenticeships could be revolutionary. They exemplify the high-quality, employer-focused professional and technical education that modern universities are known for. They provide additional choice and opportunities to students and employers. They underpin local economic growth. To do so, they need to be allowed to thrive and flourish. This means that modern universities need to be empowered to innovate with employers to create the workforce needed for the mid-21st century.