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The quality of degree apprenticeships

  • 26 March 2024
  • By Rob Stroud
  • This HEPI blog was kindly authored by Rob Stroud, Director of Assessment Services and Access to Higher Education at the Quality Assurance Agency for Higher Education (QAA), which has today published a paper in its Policy Series exploring solutions to the challenges facing degree apprenticeships in England.

It was in November 2022 that universities minister Robert Halfon famously told a House of Lords committee that “degree” and “apprenticeships” are his “two favourite words in the English language”. He has also said that he would like to see half of all university students registered on apprenticeship programmes.

That may have sounded like positive news for the many higher education providers that have been investing in this provision, and also drawn the attention of others who may wish to enter this market. Last academic year saw more than 45,000 new students enrol on higher education apprenticeship programmes. But the growth of this provision since its roll-out in 2015 has not come without its challenges.

The most obvious of these is that, while the demand for these apprenticeships is high, their supply is dependent upon conditions outside providers’ control – the creation of apprenticeship opportunities by external employers.

There are other factors affecting the success – and underpinning the quality – of degree apprenticeships, factors which fall more clearly within the purview of the sector and the sphere of influence of those policymakers who are so publicly keen to promote their growth.

The first of these relates to the additional costs of this area of provision. To engage learners who are first and foremost employees, often faced with significant time constraints, the apprentice-focused delivery of programmes designed around requirements of occupational competencies, and meeting necessary academic standards, cannot easily be achieved on the cheap.

It’s not of course only apprenticeship students whose engagement may require innovative learning strategies and high levels of personalised attention. It’s also the employers themselves whose engagement is key here. Employer relationships, expectations and contributions must be appropriately and carefully managed. Employers – even those of smaller sizes – will likely expect the content and structure of provision to interface effectively with their own needs. The delicate balancing act required of providers tends at the very least to necessitate that substantive aspects of apprenticeship provision be tailored to the specificities of students and employers, as well as the specific profession the qualification is delivered alongside.

The full content of extant conventional degree programmes cannot therefore simply be copied and pasted into apprenticeship courses. This means either that new programmes have to be designed from scratch, or that significant adaptations must be introduced in order to ensure alignment with the required knowledge, skills and behaviours of the individual apprenticeship standards. This inevitably adds to the cost pressures upon providers, particularly when developing provision for initially small cohorts of students. And so, done well, degree apprenticeships can prove especially resource-intensive.

In the absence of increased funding being awarded to this area, a rationalisation of the complex regulatory landscape which governs this area of provision would be welcomed. The streamlining of quality assurance processes wouldn’t only reduce the resource requirements of these programmes, but their increased agility could also afford a more effective and responsive focus upon efforts targeted towards the enhancement of provision.

The Office for Students, the Institute for Apprenticeships and Technical Education, Ofqual, Ofsted and the Education and Skills Funding Agency all have legitimate claims on the regulation and oversight of apprenticeship territory, along with Professional, Statutory and Regulatory Bodies specific to certain disciplines. The complexities of this current system can prove highly burdensome for providers.

It might therefore be useful for policymakers to work with the sector’s representative bodies, its professional bodies and regulators to consider the value of working together to develop a refined set of quality mechanisms for degree apprenticeship programmes. This arrangement would allow such provision to meet its regulatory requirements through a single joined-up approach, one which might also involve the input of industry stakeholders.

It would be disingenuous to suggest that this strategy might solve the resourcing challenges of apprenticeship provision overnight. It seems clear – particularly in the context of laudable national initiatives in the area of lifelong learning, let alone wider concerns about HE finance, that careful consideration needs to be given to ensure appropriate funding is made available to providers. A suitable funding approach needs to acknowledge and reward effort in driving the success of these programmes, both in relation to individual outcomes, and also the delivery of critical employer-demanded skills.

As an example of success, the University of Huddersfield have told us that they “work with employers to create programmes that support their skills development needs” and “inspire apprentices from diverse backgrounds to succeed in their careers” – programmes designed to “contribute to the wider civic good, by addressing challenges faced by local employers and driving regional economic growth”.

Such ambitions as these are of course precisely what policymakers should want to hear, but those same policymakers should understand that, if they’re looking to underpin these programmes’ sustainability and success, the investment of significant resources and a commitment to a collaborative and strategic sectoral approach will be essential.

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1 comment

  1. albert wright says:

    Having read the Policy Series paper on this and other topics, my main concern is that the Government and employers may decide there is not enough public money going into the HE sector to make it sustainable over the next decade.

    It is unfortunate that the Government seem to regard the existence of employer led and funded apprenticeships as a clever way for the Government not to invest as much in Higher Education as it needs to.

    The Government also seems to not understand that Universities are not, generally, making a surplus /profit on the delivery of Degree Apprenticeships, which could result in Universities eliminating Degree Apprenticeships from their offer, because of the complexity and extra work they require, over and above that needed for the Degree part of the qualification.

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