Degree apprenticeships: disrupting the HE sector

Universities must put employers and apprentices at the heart of their degree apprenticeship offer, say Jo Bishenden and Ima Bishop

Degree apprenticeships have been available in England and Wales since 2015 and offer programmes that allow apprentices to obtain a bachelor’s or master’s degree through a combination of part-time study and work. Found in a range of sectors including law, IT and digital, health, engineering, retail and surveying, universities design the courses in partnership with employers and professional bodies, creating a skill-centric offer that blends academia with vocational training. They offer several advantages to students, employers and the wider economy but there are still a number of challenges to be overcome before they reach their full potential.

There is now evidence of a growing appetite for degree apprenticeships and they could disrupt the traditional higher education market. Since 2015, over 100 UK universities have registered to provide degree apprenticeships, with the University of Cambridge* one of the latest institutions to become a provider.

This growth of such courses has been helped by the establishment of the Institute for Apprenticeships and Technical Education (IfATE) in 2017 which supports employers in developing and improving apprenticeship standards. In 2017, universities and employers were developing new standards in 43 industry areas, and this is filtering through into the number of courses available. This year there are 32 different types of degree apprenticeships on offer* compared to 11 in 2016–2017.

Potential for economic development

For the government and employers, degree apprenticeships offer great potential for economic development, which has fuelled their popularity across the market. They help build local capability and will be critical in underpinning the government’s industrial strategy by providing skilled graduates in growth areas of the UK economy, where demand currently outstrips supply. This is reflected in the increase in courses in areas such as digital, engineering, nursing and social work, policing and management and leadership. The most popular degree apprenticeships are in Chartered Management, digital and technology, and engineering where practical experience is highly valued alongside qualifications.

There is also a need to deliver targeted options to plug skills gaps rapidly after the UK leaves the EU, with 9 out of 10 employers set to struggle recruiting suitably skilled workers*. This suggests that universities will have to expand provision to meet employer demand over the next few years, and review how they structure their offers.

However, degree apprenticeships have yet to bring dramatic change to the typical routes through higher education. This is largely due to a lack of understanding among students, schools and parents but when they are provided with more information about the option, demand increases significantly*. This can be seen in the increase in numbers from 1,614 in 2016–17 to 7,114 in the first quarter of 2018/19 (IfATE, 2019).

There is a need to deliver targeted options to plug skills gaps rapidly after the UK leaves the EU, with 9 out of 10 employers set to struggle recruiting suitably skilled workers

Debt-free education

When delivered well, degree apprenticeships have well-documented benefits for both students and employers, including providing debt-free education, enhanced employment prospects (90% of degree apprentices stay in employment after their programme)** and development of industry-specific skills.

There are also clear benefits for universities, not least the chance to hit wider participation targets, to diversify their programme offer and to improve their performance on graduate employment measures. And they have the opportunity to lead regional regeneration by targeting local skills gaps and boosting the productivity of local business (71% of apprentices stay with the same employer after completing their programme)**.

But the degree apprenticeship brings with it the need for universities to manage a complex three-way relationship between apprentice, employer and university that complicates the typical business activity of HE institutions. 

To do this successfully, universities must get three areas right:

1. Deliver the outcomes students want

Universities are becoming increasingly confident about using the student experience to drive strategic decisions, and this must include tailoring their offer to apprentices. Degree apprenticeships appeal to non-traditional students – they are more likely to be male, there are roughly equal number of school leavers and mature students, and just over a third of apprentices come from disadvantaged backgrounds**.

Apprentices want, and will inevitably have, a different experience to traditional undergraduates. Universities must adapt their offers to meet the particular motives of apprentices, whether that be their passion for the industry, the financial benefits of debt-free qualification, or the blended experience of work and study. They must provide access to the necessary academic and pastoral support for part-time distance learners and establish where the duty of care lies between the employer and the university. And they must create programmes that support apprentices’ career aspirations and future employability.

2. Bring the knowledge and skills that employers need

While universities need to help apprentices achieve their goals, they must also deliver first-rate knowledge and training that benefits the employer. Employers will judge that knowledge and training, so universities should be looking to co-create programmes with them from the start. It is not enough simply to tweak existing programmes created for traditional undergraduates or professional body standards. Instead, programmes should incorporate the best of existing approaches, embellished with a flexible delivery and assessment structure that allows the apprentice and the employer to reframe the curriculum to meet the current and future needs of the industry. At Sheffield Hallam University, for instance, the Directorate of Education and Employer Partnerships works with employers to coordinate a more joined-up and student-focused approach to degree apprenticeships that draws on excellence from across the university’s faculties*.

Universities could also position themselves as the single point of contact for all degree apprenticeships, reducing the burden on employers of navigating government advice and complex bureaucratic processes. Universities should take control of the narrative, from promoting the benefits of degree apprenticeships to local schools, employers and parents, to providing advice to businesses on how to best use their levy and create suitable programmes.

By establishing themselves as the go-to advisor, they can create the relationships needed to expand their degree apprenticeship provision. They should then use this position to assess the market and needs of local employers continually, reframing their offer accordingly and positioning themselves as the provider of choice.

3. Implement systems and processes that underpin and unite the three-way relationship

Finally, universities should ensure all systems and processes support both the apprentice and the employer to achieve their goals. Degree apprenticeships put new demands on systems designed to manage traditional pathways through university – a typical student records system will struggle to cope with the demands of hosting an ‘apprentice record’. Universities will need to understand any new requirements so they can decide what upgrades and investments they must make. The ideal model will vary depending on the institution, but it is crucial that the record system unites the administration needs of the university, employer and student.

Universities that take action in these areas will be in a much better position to deliver effective degree apprenticeship courses, benefiting their local communities and employers, as well as increasing their own reputation. Those who fully understand this and work with employers and the apprentices to prove their value will be the winners in this market.

Jo Bishenden and Ima Bishop are education experts at PA Consulting, the global innovation and transformation consultancy. For more information, visit:



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