The Open University is set to become a major provider of degree apprenticeships as it seeks to reposition itself after the collapse in part-time study.
Three degree apprenticeship courses will be launched by the distance learning institution in the coming months, with more to follow, in what vice-chancellor Peter Horrocks said could amount to a “significant reorientation” of the OU’s activities.
Students on the apprenticeships will work towards a full OU degree, combining their studies with working for their employer, who will pay their tuition fees in full.
The initiative will allow the OU to capitalise on the introduction of the apprenticeship levy, which will require all large employers to make an investment in apprenticeships from April 2017 onwards.
It will also enable the OU to lessen its reliance on its traditional model of part-time academic degrees, which has been badly affected by a combination of higher fees and restrictions on student finance for those already with a higher education qualification.
The university’s student numbers have dropped by a third in six years, forcing it to post multimillion-pound deficits in 2013-14 and 2014-15, and there have been warnings that part-time degrees could face further decline as employers shift their funding to apprenticeships.
Mr Horrocks told Times Higher Education that while many people still wanted to study for a part-time academic degree, it was not always the best option for students – particularly under the £9,000 fees regime – and employers.
“The watchword is greater adaptability and flexibility, and being able to have a more varied offer, and apprenticeships are an important part of that,” Mr Horrocks said. “[We are] putting ourselves in the minds of all of our different types of students and ensuring that we have an offer that is appropriate for them in terms of the way they want to learn.”
The OU’s first three apprenticeships, in management, healthcare and computing, have been co-designed with employers. Students will combine work-based learning with online tuition and will be supported by a team of “practice-led tutors” who will travel around the country offering face-to-face support.
Mr Horrocks said that he believed the OU’s experience of delivering distance learning on a large scale meant that it was well placed to work in partnership with national and large regional employers who might find it “quite challenging” to link up with several different higher education institutions across the country.
The intervention of the OU on a national scale could also give a boost to the development of degree apprenticeships, which remain vastly outnumbered by schemes that result in a qualification equivalent to GCSEs or A levels.
The Skills Funding Agency has estimated that between 1,500 and 2,000 people will start degree apprenticeships during 2016, across 40 universities, and the pace of take-up by some institutions – particularly some Russell Group members – has triggered criticism from ministers.
Mr Horrocks said that, while there might be a “slightly snobbish” feeling about apprenticeships, the value to employers of tailor-made courses and the attraction of students to a more cost-effective way of getting a degree made them a compelling option.
“As long as the apprenticeships are publicised and marketed effectively, I think it will turn around remarkably quickly,” Mr Horrocks said. “If other universities are regarding them as second-class degrees, I reject that entirely: they have to meet the learning outcomes and all of the rigorous standards that are expected in terms of quality assurance.
“If others forgo that chance, then that’s their lookout, but we see a huge opportunity there.”