Trailblazing degree apprenticeships – modern universities meeting the government's challenge

05 Jan 2017

Last year saw the pace of developments towards implementing apprenticeship reform increase significantly. The scale of reform has presented challenges to even the most experienced apprenticeship providers, so how have universities been responding?

Since the prospect of an apprenticeship levy was first introduced in the 2015 Autumn Statement, 2016 was always going to be a ‘big year’, with reforms relating to the end-to-end development and delivery of apprenticeships all subject to major consultation. These consultations, the prospect of developing new structures, systems and processes to implement the apprenticeship levy in a newly streamlined Skills Funding Agency and a new central government has made the big year even bigger. Against a backdrop of policies which have been historically developed for implementation in further education, representation for the higher education sector has become increasingly important.

Pleasingly, the Department for Education (DfE) acknowledged the benefits of direct collaboration with mission groups, representative bodies and HEFCE with the initiation of a policy action or ‘ginger’ group for degree apprenticeships. This has provided an opportunity for mission groups to receive insight direct from the Department’s degree and higher apprenticeship policy lead. MillionPlus insight and involvement in these meetings, and in the debate more generally, provides us with hugely valuable intelligence.

The policy announcements have enhanced the prospect of significant demand for apprenticeships and driven an increase in the number of apprenticeships in development. Much of the HE sector has responded to the agenda with growing interest. For many MillionPlus members, apprenticeships represent an opportunity to build on their established experience of delivering employer-sponsored courses, albeit within the more stringent remit of apprenticeship standards, regulated and funded by the Skills Funding Agency.

The announcements from HEFCE regarding funding decisions by the Degree Apprenticeship Development Programme confirm the key role being played by modern universities in the apprenticeships policy. A total of £4.5m was allocated to develop new programmes for September 2017 that will offer around 5,000 new opportunities to students. Of the 18 projects receiving investment, 16 of them are led by modern universities.

Policy announcements: apprenticeship funding from May 2017:

  • Ninety per cent funding for businesses that are too small to pay the apprenticeship levy
  • Large businesses will have 24 months to use their apprenticeship levy before it expires
  • Funding for individuals to undertake an apprenticeship at the same or lower level than a qualification they already hold (if this allows them to acquire substantive new skills and the apprenticeship is materially different from prior training).

With a strong track record for delivery of work-based learning and employer-sponsored courses, the apprenticeship agenda has presented Staffordshire University with a real opportunity to further strengthen employer relationships. Early entrance into the higher and degree apprenticeships market has stimulated a strategic approach to the four key elements of apprenticeships: planning, development, recruitment and delivery.

In a region with a low degree of higher level skills it is important that the university can offer apprenticeships from level 4 to 7, some of which will be delivered in partnership with FE and private partners. Using this approach, Staffordshire University has achieved success as one of the largest university providers of higher and degree apprenticeships. The early market entry and decision to deliver in a range of subjects including health, business, engineering and IT enabled the university to face head-on the challenges of Skills Funding Agency registration, contract management, performance management and the integration of apprenticeships into business as usual. This has been a steep learning curve with many lessons influencing practice and procedures. 

The University is currently delivering higher and degree apprenticeships to almost 200 apprentices in Health (Assistant Practitioner); Mechanical Engineering; IT; and Management. We are now also recruiting apprentices to Digital Technology; Chartered Manager; Network Engineer; and Chartered Legal Executive for starts in the spring.

A central service leads on the development and understanding of complex funding rules, policy developments and funding reform in the ‘hub’. The spokes in the hub and spoke model are the academic teams; quality enhancement and standards; finance; admissions and student services; course administration; corporate information; business development and marketing, each contributing to a steering group which provides a governance structure to oversee apprenticeship implementation. In 2016 the group approved an expansion plan to deliver a target which will see apprenticeships represent 15-20% of Staffordshire University’s annual new student intake, a huge growth trajectory from a standing start in September 2015.

Now we see a new set of challenges for 2017, including sustained lobbying to the Skills Funding Agency for assurance that quality will remain the responsibility of the Quality Assurance Agency and the implementation of the levy will bring additional financial control and monitoring challenges. The levy will also mean that most universities need to consider employing their own apprentices to ensure they maximise the opportunities for development of a skilled workforce. With the development of an apprenticeship standard for Academic Professionals well underway the agenda will continue to grow and challenge the sector, however our experience so far means we are well positioned to respond.

Sarah is Head of Skills and Work-based Learning, leading a team of higher and degree apprenticeship specialists at Staffordshire University. Sarah co-chairs the Higher Education sector apprenticeship trailblazer and has recently guest edited a special higher and degree apprenticeships edition of UVAC's Journal of Higher Education, Skills and Work Based Learning.