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What’s going on with degree apprenticeships?

Author: Lucy Stanfield, Strategy and External Affairs Lead at FutureLearn

“…It is an intrinsically sound policy, but… the implementation will not deliver the Government’s ambitious policy objectives unless urgent improvement measures are set in place.”

This was the conclusion of a report released by Policy Connect in January. The authors included five recommendations for immediate and urgent action and five more which should be implemented for the long term success of the policy. So what has gone wrong with degree apprenticeships and how can they be salvaged?

Degree apprenticeships differ from degrees (and apprenticeships) in that they build employment into the programme, allowing the student to gain practical work experience as they complete their degree. Students don’t pay anything towards the programme as the cost is split between employers and the Government and the course content and structure is designed by the employer, thus attempting to get over that perennial complaint from employers that graduates aren’t work-ready. In theory then, degree apprenticeships sound like a very attractive option for students who don’t want to follow a traditional academic pathway but don’t want to go straight into work.

But so far their implementation has been patchy and there’s no strong evidence that employers are finding them an effective way to recruit and train skilled workers, or that students are benefitting as much as originally hoped. The general feeling from all stakeholders – employers, students, providers – is that the idea itself is solid, but as ever, the complicated real-world dynamics of education have hampered progress.

One of the biggest problems is to do with the well-used phrase ‘parity of esteem’; sure, degree apprenticeships are great, but not as good as “proper” degrees. Whilst there is widespread support for degree apprenticeships from employers, the Government and higher education institutions, it remains a challenge to make sure they are viewed as just as valuable (as a traditional degree) by potential students. These students, understandably, want to be reassured that upon completion of their qualification they will be employable and have the same number of opportunities as their peers who followed a more traditional pathway. One way to achieve this could be to ensure that the option of taking a degree apprenticeship is discussed with students whilst they are still taking GCSEs and A-Levels (or Scottish Highers). Often, and historically, the pathways presented to students have been (1) traditional degree (if you are thought to be academic enough) or (2) straight into employment. This way of talking needs to change if we are to achieve parity of esteem and truly offer all students a choice which is right for them.

A second issue which has been raised by the Policy Connect report, and others, is the unequal distribution of degree apprenticeships across the country; so-called ‘cold spots’. Smita Jamdar of Shakespeare Martineau suggests that the responsibility and power of supplying degree apprenticeships should be devolved to local authorities who should have a better sense of the individual needs and skills gaps of their areas than the central government. A different tack is taken by the Open University’s Laura Burley who argues that distance learning can overcome a lack of localised further- or higher education institutions, allowing local employers to deliver degree apprenticeships in the area whilst still having access to a learning provider. As yet the power of online learning in delivering degree apprenticeships has been little explored but it is exciting to think about how providers, like FutureLearn, can connect the best HEIs to local employers and students.

Degree apprenticeships have the potential to provide a much needed alternative pathway for students who want to take a different approach to their learning and career, and despite some holes which risk undermining the policy, it is clear that the desire and impetus is there.

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