‘Degree apprenticeships are falling short of their potential’

Mark Lester, from edtech startup FourthRev, says more diverse forms of employer-university collaborations are needed

Apprenticeships have the potential to play a central role in addressing digital skills education by bringing together employers and educators to provide career-relevant training to thousands of people every year.

Research conducted by Warwick Institute for Employment Research recorded that there has been a large expansion in apprentice numbers over the past 20 years – but it also observed that their composition is becoming more niche.

Apprentices are increasingly aged over 25, working towards higher-level standards, and more likely to be existing employees of the organisation they apprentice for. The data shows that apprenticeships are increasingly becoming the preserve of larger organisations.

As a subcategory of the apprenticeships model, degree apprenticeships are also falling short of their potential.

While they are quite rightly based on standards that are defined in partnership with employers, the curricula can be static and less innovative than they need to be. This is because it is difficult to revise content that requires standardised commercial input followed by academic approval quickly.

The very nature of the technology we are talking about in relation to digital skills is changing on a regular basis.

This means, at times, liaising with the Office for Students, Ofsted and Ofqual. This must be streamlined sensibly to make the proposition more workable

An apprenticeship in this area has to have access to the latest thinking and practice. Maintaining the right standards are important but there is an unreasonably high administrative burden placed on training providers to ensure regulators are satisfied with the progress – this means, at times, liaising with the Office for Students, Ofsted and Ofqual. This must be streamlined sensibly to make the proposition more workable.

Financially, there have been flaws with the degree apprenticeship model as the prices are set by the government rather than the market.

Typically, the highest demand programmes in technology areas are well priced and profitable, but others can simply be too low. It would be hard for any vice-chancellor to justify significant commitment to a loss-making initiative where academics could be deployed in more profitable courses or higher profile research. An additional complication is that 20% of the price goes towards assessment – this is typically given to an independent assessor, not the training provider. The economics of degree apprenticeships may need reevaluation to make this important type of education attractive for universities to invest in over the medium term.

Where apprenticeships meet employment

Ultimately the value of apprenticeships has to be judged by their value to businesses and students. 

Digital skills are undoubtedly needed by nearly every type of business, from the small SME to the multinational PLC. However, since changes were made to apprenticeships in 2017, there has been a notable fall in apprenticeships offered by non-levy paying companies with less than 50 employees. Evidence suggests this was caused by the employers being made to cover 5% of the costs of the apprenticeships, as well as the additional bureaucracy with administering an apprenticeship scheme. 

According to a recent survey of over 500 HR professionals, only one in six companies believe that the apprenticeship levy system is working well. 

The model is still clearly receiving huge amounts of political and business backing, and there is no doubt that the concept can remain valuable if well executed

According to the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (CIPD), the substantial investment funds collected by the Apprenticeship Levy are not getting spent, with £2bn of levy funds expired and returned to the Treasury between May 2019 and March 2021. 

A system that squanders such a large potential training budget needs addressing. In practical terms, that wastage is the equivalent of 200,000 funded postgraduate certificate qualifications. 

The significance of these market responses to the current set-up of apprenticeships is that – while employers have seemingly doubled their expenditure on apprenticeships – the number of places realistically available for younger people are steadily falling. 

The CIPD estimates that the number of apprenticeships going to young people under the age of 19 fell by 8% in the two years between 2019 and 2021. 

Apprenticeships are also often very long. They range from between 12 to 18 months – and degree apprenticeships can last up to 4-5 years. This might be suitable for some; for many, it is too long to commit without the opportunity to bring in a more sizable salary. And then there is often an issue for younger apprentices in sourcing and finding a new career. When the apprenticeship is over, without more thought and assistance going into structuring entry to the job world, the investment of time and money could be wasted. 

More diverse forms of employer-university collaboration (EUC) are needed.

Last autumn, the budget increased funding for apprenticeships by £170 million, with total funding now set to reach £2.7 billion in 2024/25.

The model is still clearly receiving huge amounts of political and business backing, and there is no doubt that the concept can remain valuable if well executed.

However, the apprenticeship model in its current form is serving an increasingly limited segment of workers, companies and universities.  

Change is urgently needed to address the economics of apprenticeships, smooth out the bureaucracy and ensure they are truly fit for purpose. If employers and universities can collaborate more closely to develop more agile and diverse forms of EUCs, then we could make real headway. 

Mark Lester is chief partnerships officer at FourthRev, an edtech startup connecting companies and universities to deliver industry-relevant, digital programmes.

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