Without doubt, degree apprenticeships have been an outstanding policy success since they were launched in England and Wales in 2015. The opportunity to earn while learning avoids student debt, making degree apprenticeships particularly attractive to individuals from disadvantaged backgrounds.
Hence, I endorse the government’s desire to see more degree apprenticeships – as articulated by Michelle Donelan, England’s higher and further education minister, at an Education Select Committee hearing last October. Such a real-world approach to learning boosts social mobility and contributes to the government’s levelling-up agenda.
This can also be said of sub-degree, employer-led higher technical qualifications (HTQs). Hence, as a vice-chancellor of a university serving many non-traditional students, and as chair of the University Vocational Awards Council (UVAC), I also applaud the government’s push to increase the number of HTQs available. And I want to do all that I can to support universities to deliver on this agenda.
However, there are several key issues that we must address to ensure that degree apprenticeships and HTQs are successful.
First, while acknowledging that students from disadvantaged backgrounds are the rightful focus of these initiatives, we must take care in our messaging to avoid creating the perception that there is one pathway for the disadvantaged and another for affluent, middle-class students.
Traditional, full-time higher education programmes are for people from both advantaged and disadvantaged backgrounds. Equally, the government, the Office for Students (OfS) and the Institute for Apprenticeships and Technical Education (IfATE) should make clear that degree apprenticeships and HTQs are appropriate qualifications for all individuals, too.
We also need to open up these opportunities to adults and existing employees, rather than confining them to school-leavers. Individuals who complete standard advanced apprenticeships often choose to remain in the workforce for several years before they seek higher qualifications, so degree apprenticeships must support lifelong learning and enable people of all ages to benefit from higher education.
We have seen the benefits of this approach first-hand here at the University of Central Lancashire. In December, six of our students became the first in the country to graduate with a social work degree apprenticeship. They completed the course, boosting their front-line skills, while still working full-time for Blackpool Council and the Foxton Centre, a charity that supports homeless and young people in Preston.
Degree apprenticeships are employer-led programmes, so they should focus on supporting organisations to recruit and train individuals from all backgrounds to increase their performance and productivity. For example, police forces use their apprenticeship levy to fund degree apprenticeships that support the professionalisation of recruitment and training, allowing their hiring to better reflect the communities they serve.
Similarly, HTQs should be based on occupational standards, developed by employers, that define the knowledge, skills and behaviours that all individuals need if they are to be occupationally competent.
Any expansion of HTQs and degree apprenticeships, however, must not detract from the higher apprenticeships that many universities have been active and innovative in developing at sub-degree levels four and five. And we must keep in mind that employers have also developed over 50 higher apprenticeships at level seven (postgraduate). These are vital for training employees in a range of key public and private sector occupations, including science, engineering, healthcare and artificial intelligence.
Finally, we must clarify the role of targets. Currently, it is not clear how these will work for degree apprenticeships and HTQs. In my opinion, the balance of degree apprenticeships, higher apprenticeships and HTQs should reflect the skills needs of the economy and the public sector. The absolute numbers delivered are less important than how they contribute to productivity, delivery of services, social mobility, workforce diversity, levelling up and the net zero agenda.
UVAC has called for a degree apprenticeship growth plan that also incorporates higher apprenticeships and higher technical education and sets any targets in this wider context. Reiterating these programmes’ multiple objectives would help the higher education sector increase the proportion of students recruited on to them.
If we address all these issues, we can realise the full benefits of this suite of qualifications for individuals, firms and public sector organisations alike.