Mind the gap report – Aston University case study

Aston-uni-campusAston University  – strategic partnership with Capgemini to offer an online Degree Apprenticeship programme in the IT sector

Aston University developed a strategic partnership with the IT service management company Capgemini (a major national employer with several offices in Birmingham and the West Midlands) to provide degree-level education following an apprenticeship model. This combines work and study through online learning. It aimed to address acute skills shortages in the fast-changing IT industry, make Aston’s curriculum more relevant and increase Aston’s student recruitment (particularly focusing on widening participation).

Origins and rationale

Capgemini currently recruits around 120 graduates annually. Plans to expand graduate recruitment were hindered by the inability to find graduates – particularly in software engineering – with the skills and knowledge to immediately work in the industry.

Building on strong links at senior level – and due to the large proportion of their graduate recruits already coming from the university – Capgemini decided to team up with Aston on developing an apprenticeship-based approach that topped up level-4 Higher Apprentices to a full BSC with two stages of study.

Capgemini staff are mobile, often spending significant periods of time on client sites away from their base office. A blended learning approach with the majority of teaching delivered at a distance was essential. An added benefit was that this required less physical space and capital spend.

The program began in April 2014 and was later extended to a full level 4-6 integrated BSc Degree Apprenticeship delivered over four and a half years. The Degree Apprenticeship is now offered to other companies and eight businesses plan to recruit students during the 2015/16 academic year.

How does it operate in practice?

Students complete a higher apprenticeship from a training provider after two years. This is a level-4 programme equivalent to the first year of a degree. In the remaining three years, they complete a BSc degree in either Business Information Systems or Software Engineering, Capgemini, as the industrial partner, strongly influences the curriculum to ensure it is industry relevant. It also employs students during their apprenticeship, and provides case studies and input to practical assessments. In the Degree Apprenticeship model, the Skills Funding Agency provides two-thirds of the cost of the full degree, with Aston delivering all the educational activities.

Students book study time with Capgemini to pursue their academic studies. The majority of teaching is delivered online in a Virtual Learning Environment with recorded lectures, online tutorials with video links and consultation sessions. A small number of on-campus sessions are used to introduce students to their lecturers and cover materials that is best done face-to-face (e.g. some elements of Human Computer Interaction). At the same of the Degree Apprenticeship there is an intensive seven-week module to train all students in the basics of software development and databases so they are ready to start work on client projects.

What works well and why?

By integrating the learning and work experience into a real employment context, the Degree Apprenticeship model helps to recruit a wider range of students. There are now around 65 students on the cohort. Many students, particularly those from low-income backgrounds, are attracted to this type of learning. The model allows them to be employed in their desire industry with a leading employer, while not paying tuition fees.

The first cohort of students performed extremely well on their exams, with two-thirds achieving a First Class mark. During the design stage, the partners gradually aligned and refreshed the curriculum to ensure it was industry relevant – which is important for practical subjects such as software engineering. Aston also drew on experience of online provision, particularly its MBA and MSc Professional Engineering.

The high-profile programme has helped build the university’s reputation and provides a guaranteed income stream of work-based learners supported by government and their employer. Aston staff are also motivated to engage through the prospect of recruiting more PhD students (as Graduate Teaching Assistants) and academic staff to support the programme, who can boost research capacity.

What were/are the key challenges and how were they addressed? 

Work-based learning requires effort to keep students engaged and support, particularly those students who are the first in their family to go on to higher-level study. Capgemini managers also have very busy workloads. Therefore learning and teaching needs to be built around their work commitments. However the company’s staff see it as their responsibility to support the students and to help meet the requirements of degree level study.

The move from Higher to Degree Apprenticeships has meant that the University now has control over delivery of the whole programme and can protect academic standards while delivering a fully integrated course.

Future plans and developments

Aston and Capgemini plan to continue the current enrolment level. The model works well for practical subjects such as software engineering. Aston’s online approach is particularly relevant to the IT industry where staff are often required to work in many different locations on client projects.

Aston is currently rolling out the model to other companies as IT skills gaps and the move towards ‘big data’ require more graduates. The fact that the university delivers the programme off-campus through the use of their Virtual Learning Environment and developing special lectures and learning materials relevant to each learning context, means that it is much easier to scale up delivery compared to a traditional on-campus degree.

Read the full report here.

Further reading