Degree apprenticeships are a ray of light in a gloomy sector

Expanding degree apprenticeships will strengthen universities’ important role in improving their local communities, says Dawn Morley

August 5, 2017
Source: istock

It could be said that universities deserve a well-earned summer break.

After all, 2017 has so far been a tumultuous and testing year for higher education. At every turn the changing higher education landscape has been apparent – in the emergence of TEF, the treatment of international researchers after the Brexit vote, the threat of mounting student debt and growing controversy over the uncapped salaries of vice-chancellors.

Now universities are facing another challenge – how to respond to the large amount of money that is available through the apprenticeship levy. This, however, seems like an opportunity and one that is becoming increasingly rare in higher education policy.

Since April 2017 employers with an income of £3 million have been paying 0.5 per cent of their total wages bill as a levy to be used to fund apprenticeships including the degree apprenticeship scheme. English universities could contribute to the emerging student-university-employer tripartite relationship that will take forward the degree apprenticeship in a variety of sectors. Universities are looking at how they respond to the higher level training needs of employers.

In addition, many universities are levy payers themselves and are exploring whether internal courses, such as the postgraduate certificate for their own academic staff development, could be part of degree apprenticeship schemes.

Universities with strong links to local industries and those that understand regional skills shortages will have an advantage. These institutions are already only a small step away from functioning as ‘anchor institutions’ – the academic hubs of local development that Universities UK envisages. They have grasped the advantages of new income streams that present opportunities to a wide range of students, from employees in the workforce to 19-year-old school leavers, to improve both access to HE and executive education.

The new deal is also good for employers and students. Students are not saddled with a £50,000 debt and, although they don’t enjoy the same lifestyle as traditional university students, they study for the equivalent of one day per week, pay no fees and will graduate with several years of work experience that will be transferable into other jobs and industries.

Employers benefit by filling those skills shortages that may have troubled them for decades. Anglia Ruskin University, for example, is capitalising on its proximity to the Cambridge Science Park by offering a BSc in digital technology solutions as a degree apprenticeship.

In short, this is a potentially big role for universities. Although Universities UK is actively advising universities to link up with further education institutions with greater experience of negotiating the bureaucracy of existing apprenticeships, the work is not simply a matter of familiarisation with an unfamiliar landscape.

Universities have expertise at examining the type and quality of academic learning but the advancement of degree apprenticeships is occurring in “learning at work”. This particular setting presents a different type of pedagogy and different challenges than those that occur at university. Until now work-based learning has often been relegated to students’ stand-alone placement experience and now it is centre stage.

Degree apprenticeships therefore challenge academics not only to work with others outside of their sector but to re-educate themselves on how successful practice pedagogy can be implemented and supported. Work-based learning is organic and messy and its ability to transform students and their learning rests with some unusual premises that do not occur naturally within academic learning.

Students at university are continually directed towards their learning. Teaching and assessing is undertaken by an academic; an expert, and the success of this is evaluated by either the method or the assessment of learning that has occurred. The aim of a university place is clear and the new measurement of “teaching intensity” in the subject-level TEF bears this out.

Work is a different arena for learning. Working can easily take over and the distinction between work and learning becomes blurred. The ability to extract the learning in “real time” to make it explicit to students is the skill of work-based supervision.

Universities, therefore, have an underlying challenge with the move to host and design degree apprenticeships. Unrecognised in policy documentation are the knowledge and skills of work-based learning that determine the success of courses and transform students into the professionals of the future. Do universities have it covered?

Dawn Morley is a lecturer in higher education at the University of Surrey.

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