Decisive action must follow the warm words about degree apprenticeships

More support and less complex regulation will allow the hybrid qualifications to flourish across more English institutions and sectors, says Dan Lally

February 9, 2023
A man controls robot arms with an iPad, illustrating degree apprenticeships
Source: iStock

Last week, Universities UK set out a 10-point plan on how the sector can boost degree apprenticeships and build on their success as an alternative route into higher education.

Degree apprenticeships have seen impressive growth since their introduction in England in 2015. According to government figures, there have been 2,881,900 apprenticeship starts since then, with almost 350,000 of those in the academic year 2021/22 (an increase of 8 per cent on the previous year).

Degree apprenticeships have been embraced by many higher education institutions, including my own, Sheffield Hallam University, which now has some 2,200 higher and degree apprentices.

Other institutions have been less keen – possibly because of the complex funding picture and perceived dangers. There are huge benefits and opportunities for universities to become degree apprenticeship providers, but there are also risks.

One of the issues raised by UUK is the cost burden of regulation, which is a genuine hurdle for many. Degree apprenticeships are a complex provision with significant and ever-evolving costs. To get provision right, universities must significantly invest and then deliver at scale – but this increases the risk.

The cost burden also varies for universities depending on the employers they partner with. Working with small and medium-sized businesses (SMEs) is more expensive and time-consuming. UUK rightly advocates that universities should do this because it clearly links to the civic role of universities to support and develop their regional economies to address skills shortages. However, the extra resource required needs to be acknowledged in the funding methodology. The government needs to incentivise providers to work with SMEs in order to unlock the multiple benefits for potential apprentices, business and the regional economy.

The sector has an ally on this agenda in the form of skills, apprenticeship and higher education minister Robert Halfon. The difference is stark compared with previous incumbents. He has relentlessly championed apprenticeships, their potential as a vehicle for greater social mobility in higher education, and the need for parity of esteem with traditional degree routes.

Halfon said last week that he understood the regulatory burden worries of those working in the sector and that he wanted to “continue that conversation”, which is at least making the right noises on policy reform.

Policy that creates collaboration would also support young people to progress through technical education, including through new programmes at the 12 Institutes of Technology funded under the government’s £290 million programme to bring together employers with further and higher education providers. As a sector, and with colleagues in further education, we must do more to articulate those routes through T levels, the new technical alternative to A levels; as well as Higher Technical Qualifications (HTQs) and degree apprenticeships, as an equal and valid route to further and higher education.

Moreover, degree apprenticeships need to enjoy parity of esteem with standard degrees. In that regard, it was heartening to see the announcement earlier this week that, from next year, apprenticeship schemes will be shown alongside degree options on the Ucas university admission hub to put vocational routes into careers on an “equal footing” with academic ones.

One thing that isn’t mentioned in the UUK plan, but is fundamental to the future success of degree apprenticeships, is guidance for schools. The Baker Clause – an amendment to the Technical and Further Education Act 2017 authored by former education secretary Lord Baker – stipulates that schools must allow colleges and training providers access to every student in years 8 to 13 to discuss the non-academic routes that are available to them. This should be built upon to ensure that those offering guidance in our schools are clear on the technical routes – and universities that are active in this space could be a good conduit for this message, if supported by government.

Degree apprenticeships continue to develop and will no doubt become a more integrated part of many universities’ offer in the coming years. But as the sector battles with ongoing cost increases balanced against stagnating income, the desire to invest significantly in potentially risky propositions can be a hard sell.

Universities need more support and a less complex regulatory model to allow degree apprenticeships to flourish across more institutions and sectors. 

As another annual National Apprenticeship Week is celebrated by government and those in the sector, warm words need to be followed up with decisive action.

Dan Lally is director of business engagement, skills and employability at Sheffield Hallam University.

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