Although the government’s degree apprenticeships scheme looks highly attractive, industry and academia must remain flexible and be prepared for challenges.
In an effort to strengthen the UK economy and boost the vocational skills of millions of people, 2015 has been the year of the apprentice.
Indeed, during March’s National Apprenticeship Week, more than 23,000 new apprenticeships were pledged by both the government and industry.
The Food and Drink Federation (FDF) promised to increase the number of technical apprenticeships offered by its member companies from around 4,300 to roughly 5,200 in the next two years – an increase of almost 20%.
The government wants to roll these out wherever there is demand
EEF’s Verity O’Keefe
Similarly, in its 2015 manifesto, the Labour Party guarantees that if it wins the general election every school leaver that “gets the grades” will have the opportunity to undertake an apprenticeship.
The Conservative Party has made similarly bold pre-election claims, saying that it will create a further three million apprenticeships to top-up the 2.2 million it has created since 2010.
To coincide with the Conservative Party’s apprenticeships pledge, and the digital degree apprenticeships launched in November last year, David Cameron as Prime Minister launched nine new degree apprenticeships in March.
As a degree apprentice, learners will have the opportunity to gain a full bachelor’s or master’s degree - in areas such as power engineering and nuclear - without having to pay tuition fees as the cost of the course is being shared between government and employers, the Department for Business, Innovation & Skills (BIS) said.
The first intake of apprentices is expected to begin courses this September.
More than 100 companies are working alongside over 20 universities and colleges to help develop the programme, which is being led by representatives from a number of industry groups including business lobbyist the CBI and manufacturing trade body EEF, as well as academic organisations like the University Alliance and the Association of Colleges.
Degree apprenticeships are necessary, says EEF employment and skills policy adviser Verity O’Keefe, because lower level jobs in manufacturing are diminishing due to automation and a trend towards more managerial and professional roles.
She adds the scheme also acts as a valuable chance to build on the UK’s science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM) pipeline, offering another channel for getting more young people into manufacturing and engineering.
“It’s a common theme that the STEM pipeline is leaky, and what we put in at the start is a lot less than we get out at the end,” O’Keefe says.
“If degree apprenticeships can feed into that pipeline then it is more likely we will get what we need out of the other side.”
However, O’Keefe warns that as with any new scheme there will be challenges, one of which is creating awareness.
“We need to get industry to come forward and declare their interest in the design and development of degree apprenticeships,” she says.
Unfortunately, some manufacturers may see degree apprenticeships as a rehash of the vocational models that are already available, suggesting they should be more effectively utilised to deliver the same outcomes as degree apprenticeships.
“For example, some companies have said that if you have an engineering degree that includes a placement year, essentially you have a sandwich course,” O’Keefe says.
“However, companies are looking for industry experience and that is where I think degree apprenticeships have the edge [over other courses].”
Though September’s launch won’t see masses of degree apprentices start courses, O’Keefe says a second round is highly likely, with many of the next phase of apprenticeships likely to focus on specific areas within the manufacturing and engineering sectors.
“The message we have heard quite clearly is that the government wants to roll these out wherever there is demand,” O’Keefe says.
However, being an election year there is a slim chance the scheme could be subject to radical change before it is up and running – especially if the Conservative Party fails to win.
“However, degree apprenticeships have already begun to be rolled out and what is important to remember is that they have support from industry and universities,” O’Keefe says.
“For some, degree apprenticeships will be a game-changer as they are a good combination of academic and vocational learning.”
However, chief executive of the University Alliance Maddalaine Ansell has urged universities and employers to remain flexible in their approach to degree apprenticeships.
“For example, universities will need to provide part-time learning opportunities, either on their campuses or through online learning,” Ansell says.
“Alongside this, employers will need to ensure that appropriate support is available for students while they are on the job, to enable them to both learn and deliver at the same time,” she says.