We can do more to fix vocational education’s image problem

Degree apprenticeships are helping to alter perceptions of earn-as-you-learn courses, but universities must demonstrate their value to students and employers, says Jane Turner

March 9, 2019

We read this week that apprenticeships are still viewed by many as a poor substitute for university, with parents and teachers less likely to encourage young people to take the apprenticeship route.

It is fair to say that apprenticeships still suffer an image problem.

With the number of approved apprentice providers – many with no track record of delivering training - almost tripling in recent years, it is little wonder that many young people are unsure whether the apprentice route is the best route for career progression.

A study by the Social Mobility Commission released in December has shown that people under the age of 25 are least likely to see the value in apprenticeships – that is a perception we need to change. 

Universities need to work harder to demonstrate the value of the degree apprenticeship, despite it being almost three years since the government rolled out this new qualification in partnership with institutions.

As educators, the benefits of degree apprenticeships are obvious to us. They are co-designed with industry to maximise the benefits for both students and employers and can be paid for from apprenticeship levy contributions.

As pro vice-chancellor for enterprise and business engagement at Teesside University, I am extremely focused on ensuring that what we deliver is relevant and of an extremely high quality. We are committed to helping businesses in the Tees Valley and beyond thrive and prosper and that can only happen with people learning the right skills to enable them to perform to the highest standard in their job roles.

When degree apprenticeships were launched in 2015, we grasped the mantle, recognising this important approach to skills development, and its particular impact in driving economic growth in the Tees Valley.

The co-creation with industry ensures that apprentices are learning the necessary skills to make an impact in the workplace.

We have worked collaboratively with our partners in industry to demonstrate the benefits – and Higher and Degree Apprenticeships are now key offerings at Teesside University, with qualifications in health, digital technology, business management, science, engineering and design.

And our ambitions to ensure high quality have been realised. In January this year, Teesside University was among the first higher education institutions in the country to have its apprenticeship provision subject to a full inspection by Ofsted. And we are delighted to have been rated “Outstanding” across the board.

We are fully aware of the increasing pressures placed upon the higher education sector, yet the Ofsted inspection process, which is extremely rigorous, helps to clearly identify high-quality providers. An important marker for those deciding where to study.

As more and more universities start to enhance their higher and degree apprenticeship provision, the rigorous and robust Ofsted scrutiny shines a very clear light on those that are exemplars in this space. 

Teesside University’s “Outstanding” rating places us in an enviable position, and is a positive outcome for the sector.

It was one year ago that the Educating the North Northern Power House Report was published, which stated that the North could be the “world’s leading centre for degree apprenticeships”.

That is exactly what we are striving to become.

We hear time and time again in surveys and in conversations with employers that there is a skills gap and higher and degree apprenticeships, when delivered in the right way, can absolutely plug that skills gap.

Businesses that embrace higher and degree apprenticeships will develop a more highly skilled workforce – the impact that this has on productivity cannot be underestimated. Evidence shows that highly skilled employees are better engaged, more productive and motivated, ultimately benefitting the organisation. 

Jane Turner is pro vice-chancellor (enterprise and business engagement) at Teesside University.

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