Why degree apprenticeships deserve your attention

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This article was originally published in HEPI.

Degree apprenticeships. They’re Skills Minister Robert Halfon’s “two favourite words in the English language” and we’re at the beginning of a whole week dedicated to raising awareness and celebrating the many benefits of apprenticeships at all levels (yes this year’s National Apprenticeships Week does clash with World Nutella Day, but that aside…).

Armchair Quarterback

I’m sure we can all recall a time observing in others – and (checks notes) ourselves – when scratching the surface of an issue led to an overestimation of knowledge and confidence began to outstrip competence. This is described by the organisational psychologist Adam Grant in his book Think Again as ‘Armchair Quarterback Syndrome’ – picture the person shouting at the TV that they know better than the coach. This is easy enough to do when trying to stay on top of the daily proliferation of HE policy publications and punditry, let alone everything else.

When it comes to degree apprenticeships, my colleagues and I have found that policy influencing involves a significant amount of myth-busting. So here are three reasons why higher and degree apprenticeships might deserve a first look, closer inspection, or further reflection.

1. The public sector workforce crisis

There is an increasingly common narrative that degree apprenticeships are cannibalising lower-level apprenticeships and are the preserve of well-heeled staff of FTSE 350 companies. In fact, higher and degree apprenticeships are playing an increasingly important role in training, upskilling and efforts to plug soaring vacancies in the public sector workforce. Most Level 6 and 7 management apprentices are actually in public services.

The Long Term Workforce Plan promised the NHS will provide 22% of all training for clinical staff (including medical doctors) through apprenticeship routes by 2031/32, compared to just 7% today, which will be no mean feat.

There is already a teacher training apprenticeship route at postgraduate level, but Ministers are committed to introducing a new teacher degree apprenticeship for those without degrees (you might have seen the recent headlines screaming about ‘teenage teachers’).

The well-established Police Constable Degree Apprenticeship (PCDA) is utilised by 21 police forces in England and Wales and delivered mostly by universities (including the ground-breaking Police Education Consortium). However, this has been destabilised through a frustrating policy disconnect within government following the Home Office decision to end the compulsory roll-out of police degrees and statements promoting non-degree routes for policing.

2. There are choppy waters ahead

We should not assume that on the current trajectory, the growth or maintenance of current degree apprenticeship provision is assured and unencumbered.

There has been growing coverage of the financial challenges facing UK universities, dubbed as one of several problems-in-waiting that have been parked for the next government, who will need to grapple with the subsequent trade-offs. Degree apprenticeships are one of the many things universities deliver that generate little or no income – more often than not, degree apprenticeship delivery does not even wash its face.

There are several reasons why degree apprenticeships are costly and burdensome to deliver. It is widely recognised that they are caught up in a tangle of regulation and unnecessary bureaucracy, which is hampering innovation and growth. Some funding bands are set too low to cover the cost of delivery, even without factoring in current inflationary pressures. The funding bands for the Nursing Degree Apprenticeship and Nursing Associate Higher Apprenticeship, for example, should be urgently reviewed.

Increasing the volume of apprentices will not fully address cost issues – for example, there are individualised processes within an apprenticeship, such as Recognition of Prior Learning and Experience and apprentice progress reviews, which are not scalable. It is important that more SMEs are supported to take on an apprentice, but working with higher volumes of SMEs, each with a small number of apprentices, means economies of scale are not reached at many points along the apprentice journey.

The current government has so far adopted an evolution not revolution approach to apprenticeships, whereas the Labour Party has committed to reforming the Apprenticeship Levy into the a ‘growth and skills levy’ to allow businesses to use 50% of their funds on non-apprenticeship training.

There is no doubt that the whole skills system needs greater investment, coherence, and flexibility, but in the absence of further detail, there is a risk that Labour’s proposal could dilute progress and prompt demand for funding that exceeds what is raised from the Levy. Potential flexibilities to the Apprenticeship Levy should be widely consulted on and include feedback on options to widen the Levy at a lower rate for more employers, prior to any (careful and gradual) implementation.

3. The role of professional and technical universities

Our recent publication Let’s Get Technical sets out five policy goals for the next government that will ensure our universities are able to continue helping address some of the biggest challenges facing the country.

The pursuit of higher and degree apprenticeships tells a wider story about the role and value of professional and technical universities – such as their commitment to widening access to higher education (the Move on Up study by Middlesex University thoroughly rebuts negative perceptions about the social mobility impact of degree apprenticeships). Their mission to support public services (Alliance universities educate around 30% of all nursing students in England). Their academic expertise and the work-based learning that has been rooted throughout their curricula for decades. Their role as anchor institutions in their regions with strong industry partnerships and innovation services to local businesses, particularly SMEs.

It will be easier for some reading this to get closer to the action than others – if you work in or closely with an institution, then (as ever) engaging directly with the colleagues developing the innovative pedagogies, educational experiences and new partnerships underpinning apprenticeships will provide the richest insights on both policy and practice. If you’ll indulge me, that’s hands down the best bit of my job and makes it easy to cheer from the sidelines!

Further reading