Degree Apprenticeships - Up to Standard?

25 Feb 2019

In our latest blog post, David Way CBE, Visiting Professor of Knowledge Exchange in the University of Winchester Business School and convenor of the University's Centre for Apprenticeship Research and Knowledge Exchange (CARKE), responds to the Higher Education Commission's recent report on degree apprenticeships. The findings show that degree apprenticeships may be good in theory, but are not delivering for small employers or disadvantaged students.

The report Degree Apprenticeships: Up to Standard?, commissioned by the Higher Education Commission, reviews the policy and implementation of degree apprenticeships. While supportive of the policy objectives, it is critical of the design and implementation and makes a series of recommendations.

In summary, the report found that the delivery of degree apprenticeships is not yet fit for purpose and is not maximising prospects of improving productivity and social mobility.

It identifies specific shortcomings in the bureaucratic processes, a lack of clear progression pathways and a shortage of providers. More needs to be done to meet the specific needs of smaller employers and those from what are called 'cold spots' for employment and education.

Timely report

This report is timely. There is plenty of evidence from employers making clear that there is a real need for apprenticeships that offer higher skills training. There is sufficient delivery practice to be able to review and refocus a policy that people want to succeed in the interests of both productivity and social mobility.

The finding in the report that the process of approving standards is too cumbersome and takes too long is not new. The Institute for Apprenticeships (IfA) is aware of this and has speeded up its processes. It is worth remembering however that this is a key part of 'employer ownership' and employers typically have diverse needs and opinions. The IfA faces the challenge of trying to achieve both speed and inclusion. The main take-away here is that the agility of the IfA and employers to respond to new standards needs to be constantly monitored and is not simply an issue during the IfA set-up period.

Progression routes and skills shortages

The report looks at the importance of clear progression routes. The University has found that enabling people to gain credits for qualifications already achieved is vital both for progression and for collaborative working between HE and FE. It will therefore be very interesting to see DfE's response to ideas about 'stop-off points'. The need to communicate pathways into and beyond all Standards is essential.

The report concludes that while it would be of great value to see degree apprenticeships contributing to overcoming skills shortages, it is too early to see this happening in practice. This is the same conclusion as the research undertaken for the University in 2018 and reported on the CARKE webpage. The University has established a baseline and provided a methodology that partners can use to map degree apprenticeships to skills shortages identified by Local Enterprise Partnerships.

The low participation of SMEs in degree apprenticeships has been a worry to the University. While it is understandable that the initial pioneering work has been undertaken with larger companies such as CGI and Fujitsu, it is vital that SMEs are able to access degree apprenticeships. The University's experience of the Education and Skills Funding Agency's processes for enabling the University to access non-levy funds to support work with SMEs has not been good. The recommendation for further work to identify and remove barriers to SME participation is therefore welcome.

Funding and collaboration

The lack of sufficient providers of degree apprenticeships reflects the prudent approach of many universities who are understandably sensitive to some of the messages coming from Government agencies and to the cuts in funding rates. The funding policies and decisions of Government agencies do not always underpin the ambitions and priorities in the Industrial Strategy effectively. The recommendation to include HE institutions in degree apprenticeship funding decisions from the start is welcome.

There is scope for universities to collaborate and ensure that they have the primary needs of higher skills covered between them. Existing HE coordination infrastructure can facilitate this and universities such as Winchester are keen to play their part in informing and delivering Local Industrial Strategies that directly tackle critical skills shortages.

The issues of bureaucracy and over-regulation are considered in the report. These are perhaps the inevitable result of the HE sector being brought into areas of the FE and apprenticeship world with its different organisations, systems and processes. As the report concludes, these issues need urgent attention if many in the HE sector, and the employers wishing to work to them, are not to be deterred because it is simply too hard to make progress. For many years, the Skills Funding Agency and National Apprenticeship Service led a bureaucracy busting working group with employers that helped point up acute issues from a customer perspective.

Social mobility pipeline

The University of Winchester has been addressing the ambition in the report of enabling greater access to degree apprenticeships from those who are in communities without strong backgrounds of participation and progression. It used the valuable Degree Apprenticeship Development Funds (DADF) awarded in 2017 to begin to build a so-called 'social mobility pipeline' to degree apprenticeships, including additional help for care leavers. Progress reports appear on this website and an article on helping people to progress into higher levels of vocational learning is included in A Race to the Top - How to achieve 3 million more Apprenticeships by 2020 published by Winchester University Press in 2016.

DADF funds were also used to produce materials that could be used by careers advisers to promote the better understanding of degree apprenticeships to young people. This is the final recommendation of the Commission's report. A case study on the results of this initiative will be published on the CARKE webpage soon.

An important role to play

In summary, the analysis in the HE Commission report is timely and one that those delivering degree apprenticeships at the University recognise. Degree apprenticeships have an important role to play both in overcoming skills shortages and helping social mobility. This is why they are central to the University's mission and are reflected in its degree apprenticeship and business engagement strategies.

The University has anticipated some of the report's recommendations and used its DADF funds to implement them. The remaining recommendations are supported and will help the expansion of high quality degree apprenticeships, benefitting employers and people seeking to fulfil their potential through combining university-based and work-based learning.

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