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Apprenticeships fit for the twenty first century

Daisy Hooper
Published on March 16, 2016

Degree Apprenticeships represent great new opportunities for both students and universities. In doing so, they are helping to challenge prejudices around applied professional teaching and learning.

They deliver the transferable skills that you would expect from a degree: critical thinking, resilience, effective communication and time management, while providing employers with individuals who are able to be productive to the business while they are studying. In the UK’s hierarchical society, this sort of applied professional learning has traditionally been considered less prestigious than ‘pure’ academic study. This is despite the fact that many universities have a long history of working with employers to deliver programmes – like sandwich courses incorporating practical work experience – that draw on both vocational and academic progress, to meet skills needs and to equip people with the knowledge and skills to be successful throughout their lifetime.

As you would expect, Alliance universities are actively engaged in the development of Degree Apprenticeships.  They are well-placed to do this, with strengths in subject areas closely linked to the needs of the economy such as engineering, design and digital, and because partnership working is ingrained in their institutional approach:  they have strong and dynamic partnerships with deliverers across the 14-19 education landscape, with Academies, Schools, FE colleges and UTCs. As anchor institutions with a civic mission they are also playing a leadership role in their cities and regions, working with local stakeholders including Councils and LEPs to coordinate and support economic development.

However, in order to grow Degree apprenticeships there are a number of uncertainties that need to be resolved. There is ambiguity around the long-term commitment to financing the programme. Since there are financial and reputational risks of getting involved with this policy, requiring significant start up costs – putting in an application to BIS, working with other organisations including higher education institutions to develop the standard and assessment plan, working with the Skills Funding Agency to secure a funding cap and then preparing to deliver the course – this ambiguity matters.

Attracting a cohort of students that makes the degree of investment worthwhile may also be easier in some places than others. For example, a large employer may find it easy to commit to taking on 20+ apprentices. In areas where there is no large employer, or where the local economy is formed by a myriad of SMEs, employers may need some convincing to work together, or be flexible about their requirements, in order to make developing a Degree Apprenticeship worthwhile. Some universities are finding ways to overcome geographical limitations. For example, Manchester Metropolitan University is investigating forming consortia of universities that can work more closely together to share information and advice, and a number of universities are developing online modules to cater for employers who want to send students from further afield.

The higher education sector is seizing the opportunity to work more closely with businesses, to develop innovative programmes and to offer exciting opportunities to employers and students. The question now is how we can make that progress sustainable. Some agreement about long-term commitments, defining who acts as the central point of advice and coordination for those wanting to get involved and recognising collaboration to share risks would help to grow the numbers further. Universities UK’s report, published this week, provides constructive recommendations for how government can provide clarity on the policy in the longer term and how employers and universities can grow the numbers of apprentices at degree level.

Case studies: Degree Apprenticeships

Manchester Metropolitan University

Through the Higher Level Apprenticeship model, MMU has offered a long-distance work- based learning route for chemical scientists since 2012. Trainee scientists gain a foundation degree at the end of three years while developing specialist and generic skills for employment in chemical industries. Among MMU’s industrial partners is pharmaceutical giant GlaxoSmithKline. Students undertake work based learning and complete their academic education online with a residential week at MMU in each of the three years of study. The scheme is characterised by a strong working relationship with staff in industry and has the support of Cogent, the Sector Skills Council for the chemical, pharmaceutical, nuclear, life science, petroleum and polymer industries.

University of Greenwich

Greenwich has offered work-based learning with degree apprenticeship-like characteristics for many years. It currently has 300 part time students studying on day release courses fully funded by their employers. The university has a commitment to CPD and embedding degree studies into practical study and industry. For example, it has developed a suite of programmes for the Royal School of Military Engineering including a Foundation Degree to sit alongside intensive work based training. The curriculum was designed in a way that it would mesh seamlessly with the work students were undertaking in the army. Greenwich is also working with Ford on the delivery of a degree apprenticeship. This is designed to meet specific skills gaps identified at Ford and aimed at candidates who are interested in mechanical / electrical engineering practices or IT. The degree elements of the programme will be delivered at the University of Greenwich one day per week and supplementary learning and work-based projects will be undertaken as part of students’ training placements, with learning a full time blend of on- and off-site provisions.

University of Salford

Salford’s employer-led, full degree level apprenticeship programme combines academic knowledge and theory with work-based learning and skills. The Broadcast Engineering degree was developed in collaboration with the University of Salford and the BBC to address the shortage of modern multi-skilled broadcast engineers identified during the London 2012 Olympics. The industry employers involved in the scheme today include the BBC, ITV, BT, Arqiva, Red Bee Media, C4 and IABM. The work-based learning that is undertaken by the BBC has led to successful accreditation by the Institute of Electrical Technicians (IET). This further enhances the students’ employability credentials and facilitates career progression throughout the industry.

Sheffield Hallam University

Higher and Degree apprenticeships offered at SHU include engineering, business and management, facilities management and construction, with programmes starting in September 2015. One example is the Nestlé Academy Fast Start programme. Apprentices study for three years to gain a BA (Hons) degree in Professional Business Practice at SHU with placements in a number of business functions. Nestlé pays course fees, as well as costs for accommodation, meals and travel while apprentices are studying in Sheffield. Apprentices are also on a £16K-£17K salary.