English universities are being restricted from offering degree apprenticeships and accessing funding to provide the qualifications at a time when the country’s government appears to be seeking to shift resources away from higher education towards further education.
The University Vocational Awards Council and a number of other higher education bodies wrote to the Office for Students this month after the employer-led Institute for Apprenticeships, which is sponsored by the Department for Education, extended its mandatory qualifications policy to degree apprenticeships, which lead to students getting a bachelor’s or master’s degree.
The updated guidance states that, for an apprenticeship to offer a degree qualification, it should now be mandated by a related profession in one of three ways: with proof that it is a regulatory requirement; that is a requirement by a professional body; or that it is such a must-have in the labour market that an apprentice would be disadvantaged in job applications without it.
If these thresholds are not met, employers or universities could still develop a degree apprenticeship course, but they would not be able to use funds from the apprenticeship levy to pay for the registration and certification of the end qualification.
The institute, an executive non-departmental body, has now shifted from referring to “degree apprenticeships” to “degree-level” apprenticeships, which do not necessarily include full degrees.
Universities fear that they may be, in effect, barred from accessing apprenticeship levy funding. It comes as senior figures warn that the government has an agenda to “push HE into FE” in its ongoing review of post-18 education.
Liz Bromley, acting chief executive of the University Alliance, said that the move “from degree apprenticeships towards ‘degree-level apprenticeships’ and the new restrictions on awards are a cause for genuine concern”.
“For apprentices themselves, a degree award is vital in giving greater resilience to future changes in the labour market,” she said. But the new guidelines “risk disadvantaging new and emerging sectors” that might not yet have the professional bodies to be able mandate degrees, Ms Bromley added.
Adrian Anderson, chief executive of the University Vocational Awards Council, called the move “a real backwards step”.
He said that it “puts in a fair few barriers” for universities and left unanswered the key question of who would pay for degree apprenticeships not recognised by the IfA.
The shift raises wider concerns about the appropriateness of the term “degree-level”.
Conor Moss, director of education and employer partnerships at Sheffield Hallam University, said: “If those outside the higher education sector are using the term ‘degree-level’ when there is not necessarily a degree at the end, it is potentially mis-selling.”
Alison Felce, standards and frameworks officer at the Quality Assurance Agency, highlighted that “degree” was a protected term.
“In the UK it requires a certain number of credits and is comparable across the sector,” she said. “We are concerned that the terminology creates misunderstandings about the word ‘degree’ when the apprenticeship doesn’t include a degree.”
Nicola Dandridge, the OfS’ chief executive, said that it was “important that students are able to recognise the distinction between higher level apprenticeships that carry a degree qualification, and those that do not. We are working with the Department for Education to identify, understand and address these issues.”
A spokesperson for the IfA said that “the institute supports the development of all standards, including degree apprenticeships”.
Speaking to the House of Commons Education Select Committee in May, Sir Gerry Berragan, chief executive of the IfA, said it was “not fair” to say that the organisation discriminates against the university sector. However, he added that he would “take issue with the fact that the universities are trying to develop degree apprenticeships; from my perspective, the apprenticeship reforms are about employers developing apprenticeships”.