Guest blog: Reflections on the challenges and successes of introducing degree apprenticeships at Middlesex

06 Feb 2020

Professor Darryll Bravenboer, Director of Apprenticeships and Professor of Higher Education and Skills at Middlesex University, writes on the trials and tribulations of introducing degree apprenticeships across the institution.

Middlesex University has been recognised nationally and internationally as a leader in work-integrated learning for nearly thirty years and the focus on higher and degree apprenticeships has been clear for at least the last ten years. An important step change took place when Middlesex was one of only two universities to be awarded government funding to develop higher apprenticeships in 2011 and played a key role in advocating for the introduction of apprenticeships at levels 6 and 7 in the revised Specification of Apprenticeship Standards for England (SASE) in 2013.

Before 2015, the development and delivery of degree apprenticeships was however seen by much of the sector and Middlesex as a fairly niche activity and certainly not ‘core business’. For Middlesex, the move to make higher and degree apprenticeship development a strategic priority seemed like a logical next step that built on substantial expertise in meeting the needs of employers through work-integrated degree solutions over many years. This was matched by a growing enthusiasm from the vast majority of the HE sector as more and more degree apprenticeships were developed. At Middlesex at this time, the respected Institute for Work Based Learning, which had been established in 2007 on the back of Middlesex being awarded the largest employer workforce development project in the country, was closed as part of a structural initiative to better embed work-integrated learning into the university’s faculties.

Despite this challenging context, Middlesex maintained its engagement in degree apprenticeship development. For example, the institution worked with employers and two other universities (Anglia Ruskin University and the University of Portsmouth) and the Association of Professional Sales to develop the B2B Sales Professional degree apprenticeship, which established sales as a graduate profession for the first time. The working relationships across the trailblazer group, which included the universities as full members from the outset, was hugely positive and demonstrated what can be achieved when ‘the right people are in the room’.

At Middlesex, work had already begun developing the integrated degree apprenticeship based on the close working with employers such as Royal Mail and BT, both of which had recruited apprentices after the Institute for Apprenticeships had confirmed that the full approval of the apprenticeship standard was ‘in the bag’. Sadly, as has been the case subsequently for many degree apprenticeships, the enthusiasm from the employers was dampened by the news that the funding band had not been approved and, as a consequence, apprentices were left in limbo and could not start for several months. Only the excellent relationships between the employers and the university carried sufficient good will to enable this innovative degree apprenticeship to finally be launched. Since then 97 degree apprentices (to date) have had the opportunity to become professional graduates in sales through work-integrated learning.

Middlesex also has an establish track record of working in the public sector and in 2017, the university was awarded money from the Degree Apprenticeship Development Fund to develop a range of apprenticeships that would enable diverse groups to access public sector professions. This included developing degree apprenticeships for nurses, social workers, police officers and teachers. This project provided the impetus for the introduction of the Centre for Apprenticeships and Skills at Middlesex University and kick started an increase of the strategic focus on degree apprenticeship at institutional level.

However, the project was not without its challenges internally and externally. The public sector bore the brunt of austerity policy, which placed employers under enormous pressure to meet the needs of service users, at the same time public sector areas had crisis level staffing shortages. For example, in health the bursary funding for nursing was removed before the new degree apprenticeship had been tested and the College of Policing was transforming policing from a level 3 vocation to a graduate profession. Internally, staff and leaders had concerns about ‘cannibalising’ existing and well establish programmes for the sake of introducing new and untested degree apprenticeships.

At the same time the Institute for Apprenticeships and Technical Education applied lower level funding band allocations for public sector degree apprenticeships, despite concerns about how this would impact on quality. Issues were also arising around non-integrated public sector apprenticeships (nursing and teaching) as the lack of alignment between qualified professional status and the End-Point Assessment (EPA) heightened the risk of the EPA being perceived as redundant by apprentices, with the consequent 20% loss of income borne by providers.

Despite all of these challenges, there is no doubt that the advent of degree apprenticeships has brought about transformational collaboration and innovation. Having developed the Police Constable degree apprenticeship, Middlesex is now the lead provider of the Police Education Consortium working with the University of Cumbria, Canterbury Christ Church University and the University of Portsmouth to win contracts with three police forces (Surrey, Sussex and Hampshire) to date. The work in the Consortium between universities and the police employers is an example of best practice in collaborative working and will mean that over 4,000 new police constables will experience and benefit from the very best policing education.

Prof Darryll Bravenboer PFHEA
Director of Apprenticeships
Professor of Higher Education and Skills

Centre for Apprenticeships and Skills
Middlesex University