A different degree

Practical on the job training or an academic achievement? Students no longer have to decide, as Christine Toner reports.

It’s always been a choice students have faced when considering their next step – choose a vocational based training programme via an apprenticeship or gain a higher education qualification with a university degree. And there are many benefits of each.

University allows students to gain a respected qualification as well as the skills that come with studying and research while practical apprenticeships are said to better prepare trainees for the world of work.

But having to make the choice between the two meant while you were able to reap the rewards of the path you did take, you missed out on the benefits of the path you didn’t. We often hear about university graduates struggling to find employment as a result of a lack of experience.

Yet those apprentices who do have that practical experience are often left out in the cold because the jobs they may aim for require degree level education.

It’s the ultimate catch 22 but it’s all about to change.

With degree apprenticeships students can now get the best of both worlds.

What are they?

Degree apprentices were introduced in 2015 and allow students to gain the on the job practical training of an apprenticeship while still achieving a bachelor’s or postgraduate degree.

The apprenticeships are funded by the Degree Apprenticeships Development Fund (DADF), delivered by the Higher Education Funding Council for England (HEFCE). The first phase of funding for the Development Fund delivered £4.5 million to 18 projects, which included 25 higher education institutions and 20 further education colleges. The second phase has now launched with an extra £4 million in funding available.

“Degree apprenticeships are a relatively new way for people to gain a higher education qualification whilst working, with the first degree apprenticeship graduates completing their studies in 2017”, says Brooke Storer Church, senior policy advisor, HEFCE. “With the introduction of the apprenticeship levy in April 2017, more employers are looking at degree apprenticeships as a way of improving skills and knowledge within their workforce and improving productivity. For those looking to become a degree apprentice, they are an attractive, but demanding, route into a career, with apprentices employed and receiving a salary and not being charged any fees whilst they study.”

Brooke says degree apprenticeships are similar in how they are managed to other apprenticeships, with the main difference being that the qualification an apprentice earns is a first or postgraduate degree.

“They may take longer to complete than apprenticeships at other levels, but as with other apprenticeships they involve being employed by an employer who contracts with an education or training provider to provide teaching and support learning so that the apprentice can learn whilst they earn,” she adds. “Work experience is a guaranteed component of a degree apprenticeship, and may not be an intrinsic part of a traditional degree course.”

A recent report by Universities UK entitled ‘Degree Apprenticeships: Realising Opportunities’ claims there are at least 60 universities and other higher education institutions across England currently implementing or planning to implement degree apprenticeships for the next academic year (2017–18) with more than 75% of institutions involved in one or more trailblazer groups for the development of new apprenticeship standards.

And Liverpool is one of the cities leading the way. Liverpool John Moores University (LJMU) will launch its degree apprentices in September 2017, with 200 places after the university’s bid was chosen from 70 applicants by the HEFCE on behalf of the Department of Education.

LJMU says it will expand the range of professionally-accredited qualifications currently on offer to develop qualifications in policing, control engineering, construction, civil engineering, and electrical and electronic engineering, from this month.

Professor Andy Ross, from the Faculty of Engineering and Technology said: “Degree apprenticeships are valuable both for student and employer in offering a direct route to a highly-skilled job based on academic and vocational foundations. This funding will strengthen our partnerships with businesses in the Liverpool region and help develop capacity and capability in Liverpool’s digital, engineering and construction workforce.”

This ability to ensure students are ready for the world of work is what makes apprencticeships so popular, particularly with employers, offering them the chance to upskill their existing workforce and fill higher-level skills gap.

Indeed, according to a report by employer group The Association of Graduate Recruiters’ (AGR) – entitled ‘Developing Degree Apprenticeships – The Employer’s perspective’ – 77% of surveyed employers agreed degree apprenticeships can help address social mobility challenges supporting part of a wider social mobility strategy.

Stephen Isherwood, chief executive of the AGR says for employers the returns on degree apprenticeships could be “bountiful”.

“Degree apprenticeships will prove a success if enough are developed in key occupational areas, and employers and providers can work in partnership with flexibility on both sides,” he says. “The future of early talent recruitment and development will look different, but degree apprenticeships are a long- term game and not a short-term fix.”

When he launched the scheme back in 2015, then Prime Minister David Cameron claimed such apprenticeships had the ability to bring the “world of business and the world of education closer together”, and let us build the “high-level technical skills needed for the jobs of the future”.  As another cohort of students take on the new challenge this year and those first graduates head off into the world of work, only time will tell if Mr Cameron was right.

What is the apprenticeship levy?

All employers with a pay bill over £3 million per year must now pay a levy of 0.5% of the annual pay bill. The money will be put into a fund to which the government will add an extra 10%. Employers will then be able to access this fund to spend on apprenticeship training. Speaking of the levy skills minister Robert Halfon said: “There has never been a more important time for Britain to invest in the skills of our people and businesses. To make Britain stronger and fairer, we need to make sure that everyone gets the chance to climb the ladder of opportunity to gain the education and skills they need to be successful in life.

“Our apprenticeship levy is a massive part of this. More than 90% of apprentices go into work or further training, and the quality on-the-job training on offer will make sure we have the people with the skills, knowledge and technical excellence to drive our country forward.

“Building an apprenticeship and skills nation is essential in ensuring that we have the home-grown workforce we need in post-Brexit Britain to address the skills shortages facing industry and give everyone the chance to succeed.

What next?

The Universities UK reports ‘Degree Apprenticeships: Realising Opportunities’ claims degree apprenticeships have the potential to promote local growth and development, and increase talent retention but the body makes a number of recommendations to ensure their success. It states:

Universities should

–  build a strong case internally for degree apprenticeships, and secure the support of all relevant academic and support staff

–  continue to explain and promote degree apprenticeships to employers, building on initial success

–  use their extensive links with employers to support the development of degree apprenticeships

–  consider working in partnerships with further education colleges both in the delivery and in administration of degree apprenticeships

–  work with careers services and leaders in schools to promote degree apprenticeships

The government should –

–  continue and increase efforts to publicise and raise understanding of degree apprenticeships

–  ensure employers are made fully aware of the availability of degree apprenticeships through the National Apprenticeship Service, by integrating degree apprenticeships into the apprenticeship offer and ensure that they are also integrated into local apprenticeship hubs

–  encourage and develop careers advice and guidance across the education sector to promote degree apprenticeships

The Institute for Apprenticeships should –

–  ensure the apprenticeship system enables universities to deliver the degree apprenticeships employers demand

–  make greater progress in developing a system that works for all providers and ensure higher education providers are as engaged, involved and supported as all other providers

–  work towards streamlining the development of new standards, ensuring appropriate guidance for trailblazer groups on implementing and delivering degree apprenticeships

– work with the sector to ensure that appropriate and relevant data is collected on degree apprentices, building on the extensive data that is already collected in the higher education sector

The higher education sector should –

–  encourage employers to engage with universities at the early stages of degree apprenticeship standard development

–  work with Skills Funding Agency and Institute for Apprenticeships to develop processes that are relevant to providers of all types, and increase mutual understanding.


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