Degree apprenticeships hold opportunities for students and employers

If public confusion and complexity around the scheme can be solved, degree apprenticeships will drive social mobility and economic growth, says Conor Moss

July 15, 2019
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The need for a significant increase in higher technical skills delivered through vocational and work-based training, to support productivity and economic growth, is almost universally accepted. 

Increasing the number of degree apprenticeships is a component part of the UK’s Industrial Strategy, seeking to address this need for a more highly skilled and diverse workforce.

Despite significant growth in degree apprenticeships, there is still confusion, particularly among businesses, of the benefits and costs of degree apprenticeships, which has led to a lack of appetite from some employers and a lack of understanding about availability and the value of apprenticeships among learners.

I welcome Universities UK’s report today looking at the challenges facing those involved in the delivery of degree apprenticeships. It is a complex area with several interested and vocal parties – employers, universities, apprentices and, perhaps most importantly, the government.

The apprenticeship reforms have been dogged by bureaucracy and often contradictory rules; however there have been many positives. In particular, we now have an apprenticeship system that has the potential to support apprentices and employers along all phases of study, from level two (GCSE equivalent) to level seven (postgraduate). 

Despite this opportunity, there has been a lot of noise from different parts of the sector around the growth of degree apprenticeships, with much criticism of management apprenticeships, the use of levy for level six and ownership for quality assurance.

The UUK report highlights the need for some radical interventions to change perceptions and reduce bureaucracy around degree apprenticeships.

Employer perspectives

Complexity in the system must be tackled by making it easier for employers to determine the right degree apprenticeship for their business, while procedures for creating new apprenticeship standards should be streamlined.

Employers, particularly SMEs, need more support to understand the benefits of degree apprenticeships. This needs to encompass audiences including mature learners, those from disadvantaged groups and non-traditional higher education backgrounds. At my institution, Sheffield Hallam, matching employers with school leavers from disadvantaged backgrounds is an area where we’ve worked particularly hard.

Public and employer engagement

A coherent and substantial publicity and public engagement campaign to raise awareness of the benefits of degree apprenticeships is also required. It should be developed with government and universities and aimed at prospective learners and employers.

Many universities are attempting to do this regionally; indeed this academic year at Sheffield Hallam we have delivered some 70 degree apprenticeship workshops to approximately 3,500 students. However, there needs to be a significant government-led national campaign that reaches a wider audience and really brings degree apprenticeships to the forefront of the skills and productivity agenda.

The Augar Review recommends a more flexible post-18 education system that is accessible to more people. Collaboration between universities and employers develops stronger work-related skills in graduates and it provides a basis for lifelong learning.

At Sheffield Hallam we’ve worked tirelessly with employers to support their longer term workforce development plans through upskilling existing staff. Consequently more and more apprentices are mature learners who have reached a ceiling in their career because of a lack of qualifications.They now have the opportunity to progress in work as a result of degree apprenticeships.

Degree apprenticeships support productivity, however to achieve a truly diverse education system we need long-term strategic HE, further education and employer partnerships in identified priority areas at both regional and national levels.  

This benefits the economy and society. At Sheffield Hallam, for example, we work with a number of SMEs across the Sheffield City Region to build a workforce that can drive innovation and growth. At a national level we are working with major food and pharmacy companies to develop the packaging professionals of the future, people who will play a role in addressing the significant environmental impact of plastics and non-recyclable packaging.

Future of degree apprenticeships

We need a period of stability and investment if we are to support both the Industrial Strategy and broader social mobility ambitions. The call in the Augar review for the removal, or capping, of levy funding for level six and seven apprenticeships is unhelpful and unfair.

As illustrated in the UUK report, employers have embraced degree apprenticeships and see it as part of their long-term strategy to address significant skills gaps.

If the right balance can be struck, and appropriate incentives and support are provided, the benefits of degree apprenticeships could be significant. But this can only happen if persistent issues of confusion, complexity and cost-cutting are addressed.

Conor Moss is director of the National Centre of Excellence for Degree Apprenticeships at Sheffield Hallam University.

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