Talking Leadership: Karen Holford on her degree apprenticeship, the first step to becoming a v-c

In National Apprenticeship Week, we talk to the vice-chancellor who kicked off a stellar career with an apprenticeship 

February 7, 2023
Karen Holford, v-c at Cranfield, smiling

When Karen Holford was a girl, a man landed on the moon and she worried about how he would get back. That curiosity, combined with a mechanic father, led her into engineering. Holford went from knowing no-one with a university education to becoming deputy vice chancellor at Cardiff University and now holding the top job at Cranfield University, via a lauded career in the engineering industry.

Her first step into engineering came via an undergraduate degree apprenticeship at Cardiff University, sponsored by Rolls Royce. In this respect she could be the poster girl for higher education minister Robert Halfon’s push for degree apprenticeships. In November, Halfon said at a THE event that any university not offering degree apprenticeships should “ask yourself why”. He has previously spoken of wanting to see 50 per cent of those going into higher education take degree apprenticeships.

Holford agrees, unsurprisingly, that degree apprenticeships should be a bigger part of the higher education landscape.

“It’s not for everybody. But for a lot of people, it’s an amazing, amazing way to learn, to study and to learn practical skills at the same time,” she says. “What I found, going between the two, was every time I went to university, I drew on the experiences I’d gained in industry and then every time I went back to industry to do my placements, I was able to apply the theory to practical knowledge straightaway.”

For Holford, the salary she earned from Rolls Royce while studying was the catalyst she needed to attend university. “Even though we didn’t have to pay university fees, it was still quite a big decision for people like me to go to university. The fact that nobody in my family had gone to university, my mum and dad didn’t have a clue, nobody in my village [Huntley, in Gloucestershire] had gone to university that I knew of. So there was absolutely nobody to draw on for experience and no encouragement.”

Luck played a part for Holford in the form of an art teacher who explained what an apprenticeship was and helped her fill in the forms. Today, some criticise the degree apprentice application system for being too complicated to navigate, suggesting that if young people need educated parents to negotiate the system then it ceases to be a tool for social mobility.

“One of the problems is that there’s quite a lot of initiatives, and I think it can be quite confusing for young people…it’s very difficult to get advice,” says Holford. “I just went into it; it just sounded good and so I did it. But I think a lot of young teenagers now have anxiety about making wrong decisions. I don’t think you can make a wrong decision. I think you’d go with your heart, and then it’ll all work out because you’ll enjoy it.”

When it comes to showing students the path, careers advice and mentoring is critical, as is university outreach: “We’ve got to constantly do it, we’ve got to constantly go there because every school year there’s a new cohort of students coming through who still need that information.”

Is the university sector doing enough on this? The sector does “loads” she says, with characteristic positivity, although “we haven't necessarily been good at coordinating ourselves. It’s quite often individuals doing it rather than [outreach being] coordinated.” Universities should listen to what schools want information on and provide that, even if it’s not their area of speciality. “For instance, for a university that doesn’t do degree apprenticeships, they wouldn’t be advising people on degree apprenticeships, why would they? They wouldn’t have the knowledge, [but] getting information [out there] about the diversity of courses in a sensible way is something that the sectors should work together on.”

She acknowledges that today “it’s not just people from poor backgrounds, it’s smart people from rich backgrounds, actually, who choose to do apprenticeships these days, because they realise that it’s the smart thing to do”. Does it matter that middle-class people are taking up the places? She doesn’t think so, as long as the government funds more.

She does point out that when degree apprenticeships were out of fashion in the early 2000s, “that can’t have helped in terms of our skills challenges in engineering and STEM, because you lost the whole section of people who perhaps wouldn’t go only to university [without a salary]”.

More broadly, Holford believes there should be an increase in pathways between academia and industry, between further education, higher education and industry: “The more fluid we can make that transfer between practical careers and academic careers [the better].”

If Halfon gets his dream and half of students become apprentices, will that change the culture of universities? Holford admits it will put certain limitations on academic freedom. Academics would need to tailor their teaching to the needs of industry much more than most currently do. It would only enrich the student population, however, by bringing in people from different backgrounds.


Cranfield University, a postgraduate university specialising in science, engineering, design, technology and management, is already geared towards industry needs, so would not face the issue of academic freedom that others might, she says.

Her challenge is ramping up the university’s work on sustainability. “Cars, and aeroplanes, and so on, they are part of the problem in terms of global warming, but engineers can be part of the solution as well,” she says. “What I discovered at Cranfield when I came here, which I didn’t realise, was the sheer volume of work on sustainability. So for every bit of the aerospace work that is to do with making flight faster, it’s also looking at making flight more efficient, it’s also looking at hydrogen, electric flight, working towards net zero.”

Cranfield is very much geared towards preparing students for industry, but is such a heavy focus on sustainability matched when students get to the “real world”? Holford says yes. “Industry is hungry to know how to be sustainable,” she says. A workforce with a “sustainability mindset” is what they’re after: “To always think of, for instance, the full life considerations of a product; what is going to happen when you have to dispose of that product, what’s the full cost of producing that project in terms of energy.”

Holford is especially excited about a Cranfield initiative called the Carbon Brainprint – a positive version of a carbon footprint, which calculates the contribution universities are making to reducing greenhouse gas emissions via knowledge production.

Smashing glass ceilings

Holford did not only choose a male dominated space for her career, she’s also been a keen footballer and racing driver in her spare time (she once got to the final grouping of Formula Women, an early version of women’s Formula One, but dropped out because it would have meant giving up her job at Cardiff University). When asked where her extraordinary confidence comes from, she says that actually she has frequently felt an imposter.

Could it be her relentlessly positive attitude that has pushed her forwards? When Holford was an undergraduate she was one of just a few women on the course, and she doesn’t remember any other female apprentices at Rolls Royce. Did she experience sexism? “No, no, actually, surprisingly, in those early years – maybe I didn’t recognise it or maybe I didn’t experience it – I’ve got no memory of it. I’ve got a memory of hilarious things happening, like being mistaken for a boy when I had my cap on.”

Being one of few women was an advantage, she adds, because lecturers remembered her name. “There was no actual sexism,” she says.

Later on, when she was the head of an engineering department, managing men who were older than her, she admits she did experience some challenges that she doesn’t think a man would have faced.

Is it possible she enjoys the challenge of entering male-dominated spaces? “At school, when I was told women can’t be engineers, I thought, well, I will be an engineer then,” she says. “If I’m told I can’t do something, I tend to do it.”


This is part of our “Talking leadership” series with the people running the world’s top universities about how they solve common strategic issues and implement change. Follow the series here.

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