21 August 2018

Embracing Degree Apprenticeships

In the first of a monthly series of thought provoking and topical articles, Deian Hopkin explores the argument for Degree Apprenticeships.

As the new recruitment cycle for UK universities begins, and with competition for students intensifying following the third year of reduced application levels, one noteworthy feature of the new intake will be Degree Apprenticeships.  While, according to the latest DFE statistics (July 2018), the number of new apprenticeships starts has dropped by 34% compared to 2015/16, the numbers applying for higher level apprenticeships has increased by 12% in the same period.   Of course, there is a question of scale; the number of degree apprentices for 2018 is 7,611 compared with a total of 230,000 in the general pool of apprentices, but this pool is growing faster than any other.

There are, however, concerns about the operation of the current system and some anxiety over brand-reputation if the most prestigious universities fail to embrace this new provision.  Moreover, while major industrial and commercial enterprises, such as Rolls Royce and BAE Systems, have long offered highly-regarded apprenticeships, there are questions about the ability of SMEs to embrace the new opportunity, one possible explanation of the very low take-up of the levy generally.  It is also clear that in some key sectors, such as the NHS, the numbers of new apprentices are worryingly low.

All of this reinforces the case for Degree Apprenticeships to supplement the general programme especially as universities compete for a diminishing pool of standard students and the prospect of even fewer EU students after 2020. The prospects for growth, therefore, are promising.  With the right staff in place, with the right support and training opportunities, Degree Apprenticeships should occupy a key place in the portfolio of any university.

What are the implications of this for the workforce of universities?  How well prepared is higher education for this new provision?  Degree apprentices are, of course, very different from other undergraduates in that they are employees of the company which recruits them, are paid a salary, pay no tuition fees and spend 20% of their time off work at the university or college where they are enrolled.  For the university, this means a very different kind of provision with the academic content of the degree course closely aligned with the work-experience of the student.  This in turn requires a different kind of tutor, one who needs to ensure the constant relevance of the course provision with the requirements of the employer and, of course, the apprentice.

Some universities are well used to this kind of provision, notably the former polytechnics who have historically offered a wide range of HNC and HND provision, part-time degrees and sandwich courses.  Several pre-92 universities, such as those which evolved from the former technical institutes, also have long experience of such work, while fractional and hourly-paid staff, many of them working in industrial, commercial and professional sectors, are commonplace in many institutions.   Other institutions, however, have relatively little experience of this work and their academic work-force are limited in their exposure to employers.  Such universities may well baulk at embarking on Degree Apprenticeships unless they are confined to the higher levels, master’s and MBAs but there will be pressure on all universities to contribute to the huge shortfall in skilled workers for which the apprenticeship strategy was designed.

All universities, however, will need to think structurally about how apprentices fit in with their traditional students and how staff, academics and administrative employees, will need to rethink their roles to best support this new type of learner.  Engaging employers in the formal development of courses is something many traditional universities have not generally done and may well be a challenge for them.

Different kinds of staff need to be employed, from the business development staff who will seek out opportunities and negotiate with employers and the Institute for Apprenticeships, to the support staff who will manage the day-to-day operations, supervising attendance and linking the workplace and lecture-hall.  At the same time, the staff employed to teach on these courses will need the space and opportunity to constantly refresh their knowledge. Recruiting such staff will require careful consideration of the spectrum of skills and experience needed to support the apprentices both on campus and in the workplace.  These personal specifications are, I would argue, different from the standard “academic” appointments which many traditional universities are used to making.

Above all, there needs to be some recognition of the contribution of the teaching staff so that they are not excluded, by default, from the progression routes generally available to other academics; perhaps a Chair in Apprenticeship Education might be a good start?  With the right staff in place, with the right support and training opportunities, Degree Apprenticeships should occupy a key place in the portfolio of any university.

by Deian Hopkin