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Degree Apprenticeships – challenges and opportunities

26 Jan 2021 | Dr Kay Hack (PFHEA) Degree Apprenticeships provide students with an opportunity to work towards a Bachelors or Masters degree, combining study with paid work. In this blog, Dr Kay Hack, Principal Adviser for Learning and Teaching at Advance HE) discusses the challenges and opportunities associated with this study route with Degree Apprentices Alex, Charles, and Sam.

This blog is part of January’s Connect Benefit Series – ‘Re-thinking delivery models for quality Higher Education for all.’

Kay: Why did you choose to study a degree apprenticeship (DA)?

Alex: I was working full-time with JP Morgan, after graduating in Business Management and Publishing Media. I knew I wanted a change in direction but a return to full-time education was not feasible, I was therefore very excited to hear that my employer would be partnering with the University of Bath to offer a new Computer Science Digital Apprenticeship programme. I applied for, and was delighted to be offered, a software engineering graduate position and a place on the DA programme. 

Charles: I was also working at JP Morgan in Project Management and Business Analysis on large technology programmes. The type of products we deliver means we are faced with complex challenges and decisions around our technical implementation. To effectively represent our customers and understand the day-to-day challenges that my team are facing I knew I had to brush up on my computer science skills, something that I’d been trying to do to without much success over the last couple of years. I knew that I learn best in a structured and collaborative environment, so the MSc Computer Science via a DA seemed to be an ideal opportunity.

Sam: Unlike Alex and Charles, this was my first degree, so the DA provided me with the opportunity to study full-time at the University of Leeds, whilst developing valuable work experience through fully paid placements - and have my tuition fees paid.

Kay: What are the benefits and challenges for this mode of learning?

Alex: Being able to study and apply directly what I learned in my job was perfect for me. I was fully aware of the time commitment that it would require and because of it being part-time it would last a few years, but it was the perfect fit for my aspirations and personal development. The DA scheme has been my best university experience, mainly because I was not in it for the fresher’s week and the on-campus student life. My small cohort all had the same mind-set, we wanted to learn as much as we could, do our best to get top marks and help each other along the way. There is a different sense of community with DA cohorts, but having things like Slack, online lectures with our professors, and being able to reach out to them asynchronously worked really great. Being the first cohort, we also provided a lot of feedback and improvements for the following years, especially in terms of how the modules were taught and spread out, what types of assignments we enjoyed the most and what industry topics should be included in the programme. Having our opinions listened to and acted upon was really motivating. 

Charles: Our cohort has around 30 students, all of us have full-time roles to juggle with the DA programme, so we’re all in the same boat and are there for each over virtually over Slack. Everyone is very open and collaborative; we post our answers to a group forum where everyone can see everyone else’s submissions. I’ve found this useful as there are many different ways to solve problems in computer science; seeing how others have approached it in totally different ways gives me a new perspective on how I may approach similar problems in future. This type of group learning, feedback and collaboration was missing from the online courses I had done before. It’s a great support network to have and something that was missing when I was trying to learn the same material by myself.

Sam: It is probably less of a challenge for me as I am studying full-time and then joining PWC for placements. Clear boundaries of when you’re at university and when you’re at work means I don’t need to worry about being pulled in different directions. I have gained a great range of experience from my placements which have given me the chance to learn more about the working environment and develop my professional skills as well as develop a deeper understanding of what we are doing as part of the course. Whilst at university we had regular sessions with different areas of the business, which were really helpful in determining where we’d like to get experience whilst on placement. This also helped us feel involved with PwC even when we were at university and once again ties in with the constant support you receive on the programme.

Alex: Although we studied remotely most of the time, we did have on-campus days. Meeting in person with the teaching staff was invaluable especially for the dissertation and research project preparation. We had at least one visit per term, (in pre-pandemic times) and they were great for relationship and community building. An unintended positive side effect of how the programme is run was that as the pandemic struck, for our cohort, things didn't change that much. We were all remote previously, we had online classes, assignments and supervision meetings, so in reality the only thing we missed was the campus visits. 

Charles: Although the workload can be challenging, the team at the University of Bath have been excellent supporting us through our learning journey so far. They have adapted the course to recognise that the participants are working full-time. We don’t get traditional semester breaks like full-time students - we’ll still be working at our jobs. Assignments are spread out to ensure that we are challenged but not overwhelmed by our dual commitments of work and studying.  

Sam: I have valued the opportunity to spend my summer placements with two different areas of PWC, a technical role in which I directly applied the programming I learnt from university to my work and the technology consulting department in a much more business orientated role. It’s been great to compare the two and get exposure to a variety of business functions and real-life projects. I’m currently working on a project for National Grid which involves delivery of a new Enterprise Resource Planning system to the client and it’s been great to see how a large-scale financial transformation project works in practice. This wide range of experience that I’ve managed to pick up has taught me lots about what I’m looking for in my career and will certainly help me - both when I return to university and after graduation.

Kay: How well does your university-based learning align with what you need to achieve in your work?

Alex: Because the taught programme is part-time, we actually get to implement what we learn better in our day jobs. Personally, for me, the programming, databases and user experience modules have been invaluable, as I use most of the concepts and knowledge I learned in my day-to-day role. I have moved roles a couple of times throughout the degree, however, my managers and teams have all been so grateful for the fresh approaches and extra resources I have shared thanks to the DA, and they have benefitted from me being in the programme as well. 

Charles: The material I’ve learnt so far has been covering the foundations of programming in C and Java. Although we do not use much C in my workplace I did learn a lot of fundamentals which helped when we moved onto Java, which we use a lot and I am now able to understand and review Java based projects; something I couldn’t have done before. My new knowledge and skills have also given me a better appreciation of the typical challenges that my scrum team may face when implementing requirements. When I’m balancing the needs of the customer against the technical implementation cost I’m now more aware of how complex certain solutions could be, and therefore likely to explore more creative options.

Kay: Any final thoughts for universities or students considering a degree apprenticeship programme?

Alex: For me, the balance between studying and working has been manageable most of the time, and I have learnt to juggle it by being honest and upfront with both my work and my university, and setting clear expectations and timelines for the periods in which I might have submissions due for the course, so my manager knows I need to dedicate more time to that in a week or two, but equally, when my work deadlines required me to focus more on that, I made sure that I worked in advance how I would meet my academic demands. 

One thing I did understand and commit to, was that evenings and weekends were the perfect opportunity to dedicate more time to catching up on reading or coursework, I set myself a schedule aligned to the course structure which helped, however the dissertation was still challenging, as that is all independent work. Scheduling supervision meetings every two weeks helped by keeping me accountable as well as using project management tools to keep both my dissertation and work projects on track. 

Charles: My decision to apply to the DA MSc Computer Science programme at Bath University has been the best personal development and learning decision I have ever taken. I have learnt so much and grown personally and professionally in the past two years more than I thought I could and looking back, the experience I have had was better than I could have ever hoped. I would encourage anyone considering to go on a DA programme to chat to previous students and alumni as well as their employer or manager before committing to it, not because it is hard, but because you need to make sure that you can commit to the full experience and immerse yourself in the programme. It is an extraordinary opportunity but it does require effort and dedication on all sides, student, university and employer to be successful. 

Sam: Overall it’s been a really good experience and I’d definitely recommend it to anyone looking at a career in technology. A degree apprenticeship allows you to get the best of both worlds, I’ve not only gained a lot of experience of active projects  but I’ve learnt a lot about what I enjoy and what areas I’d be interested in working in in the future.

 

Degree apprenticeships are a growing area of provision with over 100 higher education institutions across the UK offering these courses providing opportunities for almost 5,000 students. Sam, Alex and Charles have articulated the clear benefits of degree apprenticeships from the student perspective, but these programmes also provide a vehicle for HEIs to engage meaningfully with employers, local communities and the further education sector. Join a network of academics supporting the development of degree apprenticeships on Advance HE Connect 

 

Alexandra Radu, a graduate in Business Management and Publishing Media also works for J.P.Morgan and was in the first cohort of students to join the BSc Computer Science Digital Apprenticeship at the University of Bath.

Charles Beard is in Asset Management with J.P. Morgan Chase and studying for a MSc Digital and Technology Solutions Specialist Degree Apprenticeship at the University of Bath.

Sam Parker is in his 3rd year of the PwC Computer Science (Digital & Technology Solutions) at the University of Leeds.

The Connect Benefit Series is an Advance HE member benefit and is open to colleagues at Advance HE member institutions. 

January's theme 'Re-thinking delivery models for quality Higher Education for all' will look at the key issues of quality, flexibility and accessibility from the perspectives of the HEI and the student to understand the tensions between what is best for student success and how HEIs can meet changing needs of society and employer versus what is best for the sustainability of the institution.

27 January Webinar – Higher education for the future – a digital perspective

As part of this theme, our three guest contributors Vangelis Tsiligkiris, Principal Lecturer, Nottingham Business School, Laura Czerniewicz, Professor, Cape Town University and Mark Birkin, Professor of Spatial Analysis and Policy, University of Leeds have recoded videos their thoughts and views on Reshaping higher education for the future.

This discursive webinar with will be shaped from questions and thoughts around these videos, which webinar attendees can submit beforehand. The videos can be found here, and the form to submit questions and thoughts can be found here. Additionally, a forum has been opened in Advance HE Connect for colleagues to discuss this topic further. Book your place on the webinar here.

Find out more about the other outputs for this theme and related products and services

 

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