Guest blog: Increasing access and driving growth: how Cumbria are using degree apprenticeships to shape the region

03 Feb 2020

“It’s a natural progression for us as a university, we’ve been doing apprenticeships for years, we’ve just not called them that”

“With our commitment to widening participation in higher education and legacy of programmes in the people professions such as the NHS, education and the Arts, with the majority of our degrees having a significant amount of placement or concurrent work-based practice as part of their programmes, if any university is ready for degree and higher level apprenticeships then it should be us…”

Or so we thought.

The University of Cumbria (UOC) is very well versed and rehearsed in delivering and supporting higher education programmes, which span the workplace and the academy, fully embrace work-based learning and utilise real life assessments based in the workplace, supported by employers; a great foundation from which to embrace the apprenticeship agenda.

Over the past three years we have developed an increasing breadth and spread of degree level apprenticeships, in some areas replacing previous provision and in others developing new markets. It has been a rewarding yet challenging journey for the university and has allowed us to create new roles while evolving many others across the institution to get us to where we are now.

Among the challenges we have faced has been meeting the requirements of new funding regimes and bodies such as the Education and Skills Funding Agency (ESFA) while maintaining compliance with the new Office for Students regulations and, equally, meeting the relevant requirements of OFSTED.

The development of apprenticeships has also tested our approach to validation, programme design and delivery. Both academic programme leaders and institutional support systems have had to adapt to new ways of working.  It has reinforced the need for flexibility and thinking outside of the traditional higher education (HE) box, even in an institution like UOC which is used to topics such as employer engagement and sponsored students.

Our three-year journey has promoted evolution of our processes and procedures, with growing scale prompting more decisive change. While change is not a bad thing, the business case for degree apprenticeships is not a straightforward one, with a lower return per head plus additional costs over and above traditional HE delivery.

Multi-statuses as employees, apprentices and students brings a new client base with different expectations, outlook and motivations compared to traditional fee-paying students. While the ESFA see degree apprenticeships as employer-sponsored learning, sometimes it can seem we have more than one client.

Developing and delivering degree apprenticeships has brought us much closer to industry, with an attractive offer that is relevant to their learning needs. We have worked hard to focus on our expertise and develop programmes where we add value, but we cannot get away from the potential direct competition with further education colleges and other providers in the sub-region. That said, developing a relationship with business who are well versed in apprenticeships can take time, when government promotion, campaigns and terminology don’t adequately represent the provision of degree apprenticeships by higher education institutions.

We have a diverse employer base from large corporate clients who are using degree apprenticeship programmes to reinvest their levy and change their approach to regular annual graduate recruitment. This is in contrast to SMEs who are much more likely to use degree apprenticeships to further the talent management of existing employees, potentially providing young people will the chance of degree-level learning who traditionally would not have considered a university education. Both approaches are providing options to widen participation in higher education, but also helping shape solutions to sub-regional sector skills shortages.

Our degree apprenticeship programme has been a positive anchor to developing our portfolio for business, sitting alongside industry-relevant professional development short courses, and has helped shape our expertise and relevance to industry. It has been a great catalyst to develop relationships with business and refresh and refocus our portfolio.

We have seen a high calibre of learner come through our programmes: professional, focused and career driven, with learning being a catalyst to their professional development. This has been a rewarding experience for academics and if we shape it well, should bring academics closer to the workplace, contemporary practice and help inform research and applied learning.

Of course concerns remain regarding the volatility of government policy and future changes to the levy. However, we cannot afford to allow the enhancement of learning across the university and workplace and real-life work based learning and education to be turned back as the value for individuals, employers, sectors and communities is becoming more and more apparent and visible.


Ian Sinker
Director of Business Development and Innovation

Paul Armstrong
Head of Business Development
Institute of Business, Industry and Leadership

For more information about the University of Cumbria: @CumbriaUni |