In his first speech as minister for skills, apprenticeships and higher education, Robert Halfon championed degree apprenticeships and urged universities which did not offer them to ask themselves “Why?”
A presentation to the Universities UK conference last month also centred on the employer-led training courses, leaving the sector in no doubt about the government’s desire for their expansion and the important role it thinks universities could play in this.
The level 6 and 7 programmes now make up around 12 per cent of apprenticeships generally and in the last academic year, the number of learners on them rose from just over 39,000 to more than 43,000.
Institutions across higher education have developed and are developing programmes, but from a governors’ perspective, the “earn while you learn” model is not without its challenges in terms of regulation, quality assurance and resource implications, as well as potential reputational risk.
For many universities, degree apprenticeships are a “new animal” and governors who spoke to Advance HE are in agreement that courses cannot simply be slotted into the existing portfolio of degrees, even when institutions have experience of offering a wide range of vocational and applied courses.
Ofsted’s central role in inspecting and assessing the quality of degree apprenticeship programmes is significant here. The watchdog focuses on three different strands – safeguarding, quality of education and processes, and structure and strategy. According to many commentators, its regulatory demands in at least some of these areas is more rigorous than universities are used to. It requires self-evaluation, quality improvement plans and position statements to be updated regularly. During inspections, it expects learners, and tutors, to be able to talk knowledgably about what is being learned and how that learning enhances employability.
According to a governor at a new university in the south of England that offers a range of degree apprenticeships in business and the life sciences, standard governance structures are unlikely to be adequate to provide the oversight required by this demanding regime.
At her university, an apprenticeship team which sits in the business engagement directorate is overseen by an apprenticeships board, chaired by a deputy vice chancellor and made up of strategic internal players and external advisors - one from another university and one from an employer organisation. This board provides the oversight that she believes is too time consuming and intensive to be carried out by governing boards.
“Decisions about what we need to do and how to take forward our quality improvement and strategic plan and position statement comes through this board,” she said. “An Ofsted team will expect to see some kind of governance that has a solid understanding and provides challenge and stretch. And if that is not at a governing board level it needs to be somewhere else. I’ve seen some institutions where it doesn’t seem to be anywhere. The problem with just saying ‘let the governing body do it’ is that they can’t possibly do it to the detail and with the forensic inspection that Ofsted are going to expect: they just can’t, alongside everything else they are doing.”
At this institution, information, data and updates about apprenticeships reaches governors through the teaching committee and the academic council.
Another significant divergence from traditional degree programmes is the tripartite nature of degree apprenticeships – the partnership between the employer, the apprentice and provider.
This arrangement can bring wider benefits to the university, such as strong employer engagement, but can also be challenging. As one governor puts it, the employer is “the customer” rather than the student and they may have different priorities and needs. This has necessitated designing a level of flexibility into module structures and teaching that puts the institution in a good position when the lifelong learning guarantee comes into force.
Governors point out that their role is not to be involved in operational decisions on degree apprenticeships, but to assure themselves that whatever governance arrangements for degree apprenticeships are in place, they are robust enough to ensure they protect the institution’s reputation and that learners achieve their end goals.
Where governance structures prove less than effective, governing boards in tandem with the executive, have to take action.
A poor Ofsted rating at a new university in the north of England has resulted in governors undertaking a deep dive into provision and establishing a task force.
“We had to go through a remediation process,” said a governor at the university. “We created a task force to look at the issues that had been raised and looked at best practice elsewhere. We developed a way forward and a monitoring system which means we are now in a much better position, and Ofsted is now happy.”
He reiterates the point that any assumption that existing governance and teaching structures will apply to degree apprenticeships is misguided.
“The same standard framework that you would use for a normal degree course just does not work,” he said. “The requirement from students is different. These people are working; the amount of support you have to give them is different. The whole learning experience has to be tailored to them. The way you assess is different too. Reputationally, it is quite a big risk and we have to make sure we are doing it right.”
Because these various challenges have to be tackled, degree apprenticeships are resource and cost intensive, according to governors. Put bluntly, training apprentices is not a money-making exercise. At one university, specialist skills staff were hired to lead the thrice termly “tripartite reviews” - where the tutor, the apprentice and the employer mentor discuss progress - after an attempt to use part time visiting lecturers proved unsuccessful.
“There are additional financial constraints in terms of what we have to do to deliver degree apprenticeships” said a governor. “It depends how it fits with your mission and your offer. If it doesn’t fit with you mission, why would you offer it?”
To make investment in the programmes worthwhile therefore, they must align with aspects of universities’ strategic plans and institutional vision.
“For us, this provision completely aligns with what we do which is very employability focused,” said the governor of a new university in London. “We’ve sought to build on particular areas of strength and build fairly steadily rather than go at pace, in order to understand what we are doing and how to do it well.”
Another governor describes it as “something that we have to do in a community service sense”.
Governors also point out that there are no quick wins in terms of outcomes. While it might be assumed that degree apprenticeships would boost graduate employment records, the relationship is not clear cut. Apprenticeships generally have relatively high non-completion rates.
Assumptions that apprenticeships can boost widening participation (WP) could also be wide of the mark. A recent Sutton Trust report found they were more likely to be taken by those from more affluent backgrounds.
“They do not especially tick the WP boxes and I think that’s the case generally,” said one governor. “It is a high prestige route which is more vocational. We have more white students in our apprenticeships and more males. Those are challenges you have to tackle with your employer because it is about who they are hiring and how much they priorities equal opportunities.”
For many universities with degree apprenticeship programmes, widening access is already at their core, so lack of diversity in degree apprenticeship recruitment is not an issue particularly. But for institutions which might be weighing up whether to offer them, it reduces the pros in the face of what could be seen as considerable cons.
The governor of a Russell Group university which does not offer degree apprenticeships said the growth in student numbers over recent years made branching out less attractive.
“We considered expanding into degree apprenticeships a couple of years or so ago and decided not to,” he said. “Of course, it is being kept under review but our growth in student numbers via traditional routes is exceeding our plans by some margin and we don’t really have either the capacity or the will for such a major new strand or development. I doubt we will change our minds in the near to middle future.”
Ultimately, it appears governors question whether higher education can be the main driver for degree apprenticeship expansion. While universities can and do work hard to establish partnerships with industry, demand for apprentices is ultimately employer-led.
According to Universities UK, which has produced a ten-point plan which aims to lay the foundation for future growth in degree apprenticeships, what would help to boost interest across the sector is reform of how they are regulated, better promotion of degree apprenticeships to employers (particularly SMEs) and learners, and ensuring there is sufficient investment and support to guarantee their future success.
Vivienne Stern, UUK’s CEO, said: "Degree apprenticeships have proven to be successful due to their joint development between employers and universities and the fact they enable students to learn while they earn. With further collaboration between the government, the higher education sector and employers, degree apprenticeships could be developed further and can play a key role in plugging the skills gap in the UK."
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