Kieron Rees argues degree apprenticeships are essential to Wales’ future success
What is an apprenticeship? Such an apparently simple question encompasses a complicated and often difficult-to-know landscape, a landscape that is still shifting. Many people will understand that an apprenticeship offers a mix of on the job training, paid employment, and formal study, but what may be less well known is that apprenticeships can also lead to an undergraduate or postgraduate degree – even a doctorate.
Last week was Skills for Work Week, part of a national campaign to promote the value of investing in the development of skills in the workplace. When it comes to skills development, the old questions of parity of esteem between the academic and the vocational persist, as do the many fingers pointing to European neighbours who ‘do it better’. The thrust of it is simple – in a strong economy, education which is focused on skills and the workplace should be viewed as no lesser than ‘traditional’ types of learning.
Such debates have become increasingly urgent as the skills needs of Wales and the UK change and evolve. According to projections by Working Futures 2014-2024, 54% of those in employment in 2024 will be expected to hold qualifications at level 4 or above which compares to only 28% who held qualifications at level 4 or above in 2004. Work by the CBI found increasing numbers of firms are looking to recruit high-skilled workers, from 58% in 2011 to 74% in 2016. The same report found that geographic areas with more graduates are also significantly more productive than those with fewer.
This better understanding of the changing skills needs of the UK has prompted a series of changes and reforms to vocational education. Some of these changes, originating in England and from the UK Government, have had an impact beyond their intended geographical area. The introduction of the apprenticeship levy, the closure of UK Commission for Employment and Skills, the diminished role of sector skills councils… All of these changes, intentionally or otherwise, put skills plans for Wales under pressure.
And whereas some of these changes, such as the levy, present a difficult knot of the cross-border ‘problem’ to untangle, others present very real opportunities. The ongoing development of degree apprenticeships in Wales and across the UK has, for the first time, placed a significant focus on apprenticeships which offer those who complete them an undergraduate or master’s degree. In England, the number of degree apprentices has grown rapidly since they were first introduced in 2015. By the end of 2017 there will be over 7,600 degree apprentices in England, with growth being driven by business demand in three particular areas – the chartered manager, digital and technology solutions, and engineering-related apprenticeships.
The benefits that degree apprenticeships offer are wide-ranging. Research by Universities UK found that universities delivering them in England identified ‘increased business engagement’ and ‘social mobility, widening and diversifying participation’ in the student body as the main benefits of degree apprenticeships.
For the individual, degree apprenticeships offer a choice to people who wish to study while working or whose circumstances may preclude them from committing to a full-time degree course, and can be used by employers both to train new entrants to the workforce and to meet emerging skills needs for existing staff.
Initial development of degree apprenticeships is underway with Welsh universities exploring the possibility of developing frameworks in areas including computing, advanced manufacturing, and engineering. There is already a real appetite for degree apprenticeships among Welsh universities and employers, both in the areas that Welsh Government is exploring and wider, including the potential for management qualifications.
It has been shown that Welsh universities benefit all regions in Wales, and collaboration between universities, employers and further education colleges is already well-established. Partnerships such as the Horizon Nuclear Power’s with Bangor University and Grwp Llandrillo Menai, and University of South Wales’ work delivering higher education alongside further education colleges demonstrate how this kind of collaboration is already working well for Wales. When Universities Wales gave evidence to the Economy, Infrastructure and Skills committee last week, we argued that degree apprenticeships offer an opportunity to build upon this collaboration, and in doing so help tackle head on the issue of parity of esteem.
The role of graduates and universities in driving growth is well-evidenced. With Wales’ productivity per head continuing to be the lowest of the four UK nations and the challenges posed by the UK’s exit from the European Union, new approaches, such as degree apprenticeships, are essential to Wales’ future success.
While the answer to the question ‘What is an apprenticeship?’ may not be getting simpler, it may mean the question is asked by people who had never before considered either an apprenticeship or higher education as being ‘for them’. The time is right to capitalise on the lessons learned developing degree apprenticeships elsewhere. The size and responsiveness of the university sector in Wales gives us an opportunity to set our own path, to respond to the demand among Welsh businesses and to put in place programmes that can build upon the partnerships that exist between universities, colleges, and employers. Developing these programmes is a body of work realistic in scope and one which universities are ready to drive forward to improve Wales’ productivity and skills levels.