Degree apprenticeships are quietly revolutionising higher education

Universities will need to think hard about how they will respond to the growing popularity of the qualification, says Elizabeth Miller

April 1, 2018
Land survey apprentice

Today marks one year since the introduction of the Apprenticeship Levy – the government’s landmark scheme to change the way apprenticeships are funded and, ultimately, meet its ambition to create three million apprenticeships by 2020.

However, government figures show the number of people undertaking them has fallen by 59 per cent since the introduction. However, behind these headline-grabbing statistics, a quiet revolution is changing the way traditional higher education is offered.

The most obvious face of this change is the creation of degree apprenticeships, which I believe has the potential to radically alter the relationship between higher education providers, vocational education, students and employers.

Degree apprenticeships were introduced in 2015 to provide students with a university-level qualification and employment experience while allowing them to share the cost of their education with employers.

They move beyond the old-style “higher apprenticeships” by making a university degree a core part of the apprenticeship experience. They are also designed to meet employer demand for skills that they currently feel many graduates are lacking in – the most recent CBI/Pearson College London graduate employer survey found that 46 per cent of employers are dissatisfied with their graduate recruits’ commercial awareness.

Although in their infancy, degree apprenticeships are growing in popularity. Spurred on partly by students who, given increases in fees, quite rightly expect more from their university experience than previous generations, and partly by forward thinking higher education institutions who have spotted a gap in the market for alternatives to a traditional degree.

Since their foundation, the types of degree apprenticeships on offer have evolved away from mainly STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) subjects and towards legal, consultancy and  risk-analysis courses. At Pearson College London, we have launched a management degree apprenticeship in partnership with the confectionary company Mondelēz. 

This growing popularity has potential to change the nature of higher education. The more traditional universities now recognise that “student consumer” attitudes are changing, and they need to change with them.

However, such a wholescale change in the design and delivery of undergraduate, and in some cases postgraduate, courses will not be easy. Universities will need to think structurally about how apprentices fit in with their traditional students and how staff, academic and administrative, will need to rethink their roles to best support this new type of learner and to engage meaningfully with their employers.

In addition to these changes, I predict that many universities will need to think more rigorously about how they engage with industry. While the majority will have already developed links with employers, if the degree apprenticeship is to be incorporated into the university offer, as I expect it to be, they will need to involve employers in the development of the courses.

At Pearson College London we involve employers in the design of our degrees to ensure graduates leave with the skills employers need, as well as the academic rigour expected of graduates.

The good news is that employers are willing to get involved; the Pearson College London/CBI graduate employer survey found that three-quarters of employers are prepared to play a greater role in this area.

What we need now is the political and the organisational will to make it happen. As the new employment-minister-turned-education-secretary Damian Hinds has spoken of the importance of teaching workplace skills, this is perhaps an initiative that his department could take the lead on.

An increased popularity for degree apprenticeships will also have an impact on similar courses, such as foundation degrees.

Very few foundation degrees are offered as degree apprenticeships, making them a less attractive option for employers looking to spend their levy. As part of research I conducted on degree apprenticeships, one interviewee – a staff member at a post-1992 university – said that degree apprenticeships are already reshaping demand for foundation degrees and other higher education non-degree courses, saying “that provision isn’t necessarily going to survive”.

In Britain, apprenticeships are often seen as the poor relation to a traditional university education, but this is changing.

In recent years, major professional companies such as EY have increased their intake of apprentices and at Pearson College London we work with companies such as IBM, Mondelēz and L’Oréal. While this is fantastic for the students, we should take steps to ensure that the demographic profile of degree apprentices remains balanced and maximises opportunities for young people from lower socioeconomic backgrounds and minority groups.

Exam results are not the only way to judge potential: assessment days, interviews and group exercises would enable institutions offering degree apprenticeships to gain a more holistic and fair perspective on applicants’ potential.

Over the past decade, fee rises, automated intelligence, skills shortages and economic uncertainty have created the perfect opportunity for degree apprentices to thrive.

I believe that, looking ahead to the next decade, they are going to increasingly shape the higher education debate for the better.

However, change does bring with it unexpected consequences and the rise of degree apprenticeships will be no different. Everyone working within higher education would benefit from considering how best to manage these changes now, before they happen.

Elizabeth Miller is business management degrees programme leader at Pearson College London

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