The growth of higher apprenticeships – where people taken on by employers can simultaneously study to bachelor’s and master’s degree level – could be a “major opportunity” for universities if they grab the initiative but could be a threat if they do not.
That is the view of Adrian Anderson, chief executive of the University Vocational Awards Council, who said there was a possibility that the apprenticeships could end up a means by which high-level skills are delivered to the workforce without any involvement by universities.
As the government is reforming apprenticeships, it is not yet clear how the new higher level schemes will work in practice.
They have become possible thanks to initial reforms to vocational courses that raised the level of qualifications available through the apprenticeship route beyond the equivalents of GCSE and A level. The new higher apprenticeships offer work-based learners the chance to gain qualifications at levels four and five – the equivalent of a higher education certificate and a foundation degree – and, most recently, levels six and seven, which cover bachelor’s and master’s degrees.
Employers in almost 30 occupational areas, including law, accountancy and nursing, are now getting together to develop new higher apprenticeship standards. These set out the knowledge and competencies that an apprentice should have in each area. Eleven standards, mostly in engineering-related subjects, have been completed already.
It is imperative, Mr Anderson said, that universities take note of how things are developing. “It is a way for universities to get involved with employers in terms of developing the knowledge and skills of their employees and reach a new cohort.”
Under reforms being enacted by the government, employers will be given purchasing power over apprenticeship provision – they will choose which institutions they work with. This is part of a bid to drive up the quality and relevance of courses, Mr Anderson said.
Under the present system, only further education and private providers are entitled to receive funding for apprenticeship places through the Skills Funding Agency. Because apprenticeships that have involved higher education qualifications taught at universities are not entitled to this funding, costs of any courses studied there have had to be covered by employers or students.
This situation was “frustrating”, said Julie Harris, higher apprenticeship project manager at University of Derby Corporate, the institution’s corporate training and development division. “Funding has been an issue because employers…see the big investment by the government in apprenticeships and they jump to the conclusion that there is money around for all.”
One idea being considered for the new system, Mr Anderson said, was to allow employers to reclaim some of the costs of providing the study for an apprenticeship through the tax system. “[This] is an interesting development for universities…It means that [they] will be getting state support for higher-level learning programmes.”
Once the standards are in place, the next stage would be to develop the assessment and delivery of learning for the apprenticeships.
“That is where universities come in,” Mr Anderson explained. “Employers will want some kind of assessment and will want to know how that knowledge and competence is delivered through a learning programme,” and universities have a “key role” to play in this.
“There should not be apprenticeships on one side and university on the other,” he said.
Late to the party
Echoing that sentiment, Ms Harris noted that universities were coming to the higher apprenticeship agenda quite late. “This is the first year that we have been offering [higher apprenticeships], and they are in very small numbers but growing,” she said.
The University of Derby and Middlesex University are involved in some of the first higher apprenticeships to be available nationwide. The institutions developed the courses as part of the £25 million Higher Apprenticeship Fund scheme launched in 2011.
One of Middlesex’s offerings will start in September. New College Nottingham will deliver a degree – validated by Middlesex – in collaboration with the construction industry in the areas of building site management, and quantity surveying and commercial management. Middlesex has also developed a degree in professional aviation pilot practice with the Aviation Skills Partnership.
Derby’s Higher Apprenticeship Fund scheme offers certificates of higher education and foundation degrees for the tutors and assessors of work-based learning programmes. Offerings that have been developed include a foundation degree for assistant practitioners for health with the NHS. Another is for students with A levels to gain higher national diplomas and higher national certificates in mineral products technology in collaboration with employer Hanson UK and the Mineral Products Qualifications Council.
The mineral products course began 18 months ago with a group of six students. Since then, the collaboration has attracted four more employers, and the latest cohort of students, due to start in September, totals 30.
The new recruits will have classes based on problems faced by employers and will get the chance to apply the theory in their employment. Course fees are paid by Hanson, and apprentices will draw an annual salary of £15,425 in the first year. Upon completing the course, they have a good chance of securing a graduate-level job with their sponsor.
Such higher apprenticeships could be more attractive to students than the current undergraduate route to employment. After studying for three years, a student of a full-time university degree will be saddled with debts of up to £,000 from loans for tuition costs alone as well as those for living costs.
In offering such cost-effective study, higher apprenticeships help to widen participation and social mobility, Ms Harris said.
“With the raising of the [tuition] fees for universities, a lot of young people are having to look for alternatives, and the idea of earning and learning is very attractive.”
She added that higher apprenticeships cover a range of different learners, from school-leavers with A levels to people already in work who need new skills to advance.
“To us, even though it is badged as an apprenticeship, it is higher level skills in the workplace – and that is what we do,” Ms Harris said.
According to Ruth Farwell, vice-chancellor of Bucks New University, higher apprenticeships offer a way of providing specific training for groups not large enough to warrant a university investing in state-of-the-art, industry-standard facilities. “Those things [can be taught] in the workplace,” she said.
Although she admitted that higher apprenticeships would not be “every university’s bag”, she added: “I really think that is the model of higher education in the future.”