Degree apprenticeships: let’s not snatch defeat from the jaws of victory

Especially in partnership with small-and-medium-sized enterprises, degree apprenticeships can help the deliver the skills that the UK's post-Brexit economy will need, says Tim Quine 

February 4, 2019
Apprentices at work
Source: iStock

In the melee of Brexit amendments last week, an important report about a crucial growth area for UK higher education landed with little fanfare or debate.

The Higher Education Commission’s analysis on degree apprenticeships, however, deserves to be read thoroughly and its findings considered given the critical importance of this provision for small businesses and disadvantaged young people.       

This area of government policy matters because the UK’s impending departure from the European Union brings into sharp focus the need to deliver on the country’s Industrial Strategy. We need a highly skilled workforce prepared for the jobs of the present and the portfolio careers of the future, which will be characterised by rapid technological change.

According to World Economic Forum research, the skills most in demand in 2030 will be complex problem-solving, critical thinking, creativity, emotional intelligence, judgement and decision-making. Studying for a university degree can be a powerful way to develop these attributes, but often a deeper collaboration with industry in both research and education is required in order to deliver the full range of these skills.

Degree apprenticeships that foster this type of university-industry collaboration have the potential to deliver a quadruple win – for students, employers, universities and government.

It was this potential that led to the University of Exeter’s engagement with degree apprenticeships in 2016-17. We have seen our programmes grow to the point that just less than half of all degree apprentices starting within the Russell Group during this academic year will be taught at Exeter.

There are clear benefits to developing new learning models and attracting new learners. In civic engagement, there is synergy with our work in Exeter to develop a digital skills training partnership for learners of the south-west, which will help to attract high-skills employers to the region. 

The opportunity to co-create innovative courses with employers has been hugely valuable, whether working in partnership with several organisations, as in the development of our digital and technology solutions programme, or creating a bespoke solution for a single partner such as our collaboration with JP Morgan for our financial services degree apprenticeship.

We have been challenged to think critically about our approaches to education and the use of technology and space that is driving further innovation in on-campus programmes.

Degree apprenticeships are creating a high level of demand from young and mature students who may not otherwise have chosen to study with universities such as Exeter. Students recognise that they are both obtaining the skills required by their employer through the apprenticeship and through their degree study they are developing the core attributes and understanding that will equip them for their portfolio careers.

Therefore, alongside the Universities Vocational Awards Council and many others in the sector, we argue for the retention of the “degree” in degree apprenticeships rather than lose these distinctive qualities in “degree-level” apprenticeship. It is clear that students value the global, portable qualification that a degree offers.

While the potential benefits of degree apprenticeships are clear, the policy is hampered by flaws largely relating to bureaucracy.

The review by the Higher Education Commission emphasises these challenges, most significantly the substantial under-delivery to small and medium-sized enterprises as well as geographic “cold spots” where people already at a severe educational or economic disadvantage have limited or no degree apprenticeship opportunities available to them.

The challenge of delivering degree apprenticeships to SMEs is an issue that resonates strongly with Exeter’s experience. Developing programmes with big corporate partners such as IBM, Laing O’Rourke and JP Morgan is vital. However, we are simultaneously conscious of our influential role in the south west economy.

Ours is a region in which 99.7 per cent of businesses are micros or SMEs – far higher than the national average – many of whom have pressing need, for example, for digital skills. But repeated delays and challenges around securing funding to work with SMEs have blocked us from servicing demand from prospective SME partners, to the detriment of all involved. 

While not a silver bullet with respect to the social mobility potential of degree apprenticeships, our experience suggests that the ability to service demand from SMEs would greatly improve opportunity for students from disadvantaged backgrounds, as well as increasing economic productivity in the workplace.

We should all therefore welcome the HEC’s report and its recommendations, particularly endorsing the suggestion that the government should allow all higher education institutions approved to deliver apprenticeships for non-levy payers. 

As the report suggests, this has the potential “at the stroke of pen” to release a significant amount of latent potential within the system.

This will enable universities and industry to collaborate to support young and mature students to develop the skills that our economy will need post-Brexit and in the longer term.

Tim Quine is deputy vice-chancellor (education) at the University of Exeter.

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