Why National Apprenticeship Week is important for universities

3 Feb 2020
Fire it up National Apprenticeship campaign banner reads 'Join us in supporting and celebrating apprenticeships #fire it up'

To mark National Apprenticeship Week 2020 (3-9 February), 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), sets out why this annual celebration of the impact of apprenticeships on individuals, employers and the economy is important to universities.

National Apprenticeship Week is one of my favourite times of the year, though when I ran the National Apprenticeship Service, we tried to put it back a month or so when the weather was likely to be a little kinder.

It is a time of the year when the media spotlight shines on the world of apprenticeships. It is the best opportunity to get across key messages about the state of apprenticeships as they currently are rather than as the public imagines them. This is particularly true of the range of apprenticeships on offer and the vocational pathways to higher skills and degrees.

The Further Education and Higher Education sectors come together in order to maximise the impact of the message and to ensure positive stories are told about apprentices and their employers. Many of the personal stories are both humbling and impressive. They motivate all of us who care about apprenticeships and provide a real boost to young people's confidence as they are starting out on their careers and entering the world of work.

These stories are important internally too. Many university staff have little day-to-day contact with degree apprentices. There can be a temptation to see such individuals as good additions for the university but not quite as important as full-time academic students. I have sometimes sensed this undercurrent in conversations with university staff and it is all part of the transition for universities as they develop closer relationships with employers.

This under appreciation of degree apprentices can be a little frustrating, especially when the leadership from the top of the university has ensured that degree apprenticeships and apprentices have been given prominence and importance in the highest mission statements and strategies.

So, National Apprenticeship Week is an opportunity for all university staff to become more familiar with the enormous talents and potential of degree apprentices. I hope everyone will therefore make the effort to find out more this week.

National Apprenticeship Week has a central theme so that there is a real and achievable focus for the multitude of creative promotional activities. This year it is 'Look Beyond', an exploration of the diversity and value of apprenticeships. While the title sounds like agency speak, the messages behind it are important.

Despite all the progress that has been made in expanding the number and range of high-quality apprenticeships, we have not yet managed to get across to people, and parents in particular, the range and diversity of apprenticeships that are available. I wonder too what percentage of the population would think that universities are the fastest growing part of the apprenticeship family.

I learned fairly early in my own time with the National Apprenticeship Service that it is too easy to overcomplicate messages in National Apprenticeship Week. At Winchester, for example, ensuring that all parents and employers know that we offer degree apprenticeships in Digital and Technology Solutions, Social Work and Data Science, to name but three, would be a real achievement.

National Apprenticeship Week is a great opportunity to get closer to local employers and key influencers as part of celebrating the successes of local businesses and employees. There are more than enough great news stories to go round.

It is employers who have been driving the expansion of degree apprenticeships as increasing numbers of new apprenticeship standards have been developed by and for businesses.

Universities know that they have had to respond with flexibility to ensure that the vital knowledge components of an apprenticeship are delivered in ways that work well with the operational requirements of businesses. Responsiveness and a willingness to understand and support how a business really works have been key to progress and delivering quality apprenticeships.

National Apprenticeship Week is therefore an important opportunity for businesses to talk to each other about the responsiveness of universities and getting the most out of collaborative working. And by supporting business network events, universities can not only show what is possible but also continue to learn what businesses need and expect from their apprenticeship partners.

Bringing employers and politicians together is much more than a photo opportunity. It provides a chance to explain to policy influencers how apprenticeships really work for employers and what more can be done to help develop them further. This is especially important this year as Government refreshes its policy ambitions and has already indicated its wish to look at the Apprenticeship Levy to ensure it is working as well as it could.

One issue that has been exercising employers working with Winchester has been the possibility of removing the degree element from degree apprenticeships. This is not something that employers want removed and flies in the face of the policy rhetoric that policy is employer-led when it comes to apprenticeships.

The growth in higher and degree apprenticeships is one of the most important transformational features of the apprenticeship offer. Indeed a Skills Minister once told me that he felt it was one of the greatest achievements of the then Government.

The engagement of universities has vitally underpinned this transformation and the benefits can only grow unless their participation is destabilised by policy changes such as the removal of degrees from degree apprenticeships.

I cannot believe this is a risk the Government wishes to take at a time when universities are engaging with the high skills needs of the country in a concerted national effort to boost productivity and tackle vital higher skills shortages.

So, National Apprenticeship Week is a great time to promote all that is great about apprenticeships and the role that universities play. It is also a vital opportunity, while the focus is on apprenticeships and employers, to get the ear of those policy influencers to make sure they appreciate that employers and universities are united on the importance of degrees in degree apprenticeships.

Find out more about Degree Apprenticeships at the University of Winchester

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