Degree apprenticeships are part of the flexible education of the future

Diversifying the way we offer learning opportunities will be crucial to adapting to the economy of the future, writes Kieron Rees


We are now nearly a year and a half into the implementation of degree apprenticeships in Wales, so this National Apprenticeship Week is the perfect time to reflect on what difference degree apprenticeships are making and the opportunities offered over the next few years. 


A degree apprenticeship is a work-based learning programme where you spend 80% your time ‘on the job’ and 20% studying. At the end of the degree apprenticeship the apprentice can gain either a bachelor’s or master’s degree, although if they leave their apprenticeship early they can still attain a level 4 or 5 qualification such as a Higher National Certificate (HNC) or Higher National Diploma (HND). 


In Wales, 2018/19 saw the introduction of the first degree apprenticeship framework which was the Digital Degree Apprenticeship and included pathways in cyber security, data science and software engineering.


This degree apprenticeship is at level 6 which means apprentices start at level 4, the equivalent to the first year of university, move through levels 4, 5 and 6 just like a traditional degree, and at the end graduate with a bachelor’s degree. The first year of the degree apprenticeship in digital saw 155 enrolments at universities across Wales. This was followed by the introduction of a degree apprenticeship in advanced manufacturing and engineering, also at bachelor’s level, in 2019/20. 


At Universities Wales, we have spoken at length about the challenges posed by the changing workplace and Wales’ demographics. We have an ageing population that is older and less well-qualified than the UK as a whole.


To prepare Wales to make the most of the opportunities afforded by technological change, we will need more people of all ages and backgrounds to access higher level learning.  Given this, degree apprenticeships offer a valuable opportunity to upskill and retrain people in Wales. 


One way that degree apprenticeships can do that is by offering those already on an apprenticeship a work-based pathway to a degree qualification. According to 2019-20 in-year figures, 27% of those on degree apprenticeships in Wales had joined at either level 5 or 6 as their prior learning could be taken into account. Previously, these apprentices would not have had a work-based route to a degree. 


We are also seeing that degree apprenticeships have a positive impact on the number of women able to access careers in computing. In the first year of delivery of the degree apprenticeship in digital, 21% of those taking part were women compared to 13% of the traditional full-time undergraduate cohort in computing. 


At the Cross Party Group for Universities last October, we heard from employers and degree apprentices about their experiences of the programmes. One employer, a Small or Medium Enterprise working in software, highlighted how degree apprenticeships offered a valuable new way for them to bring more people into their business and grow. 


And Siobhan Stevens, a degree apprentice based with Mobilise in Swansea and studying with University of Wales Trinity Saint David’s, also emphasised the value of being able to apply her learning in the workplace: “I get to combine what I have learnt in University with what I’m learning in work. Being able to work and earn is an amazing opportunity and coming out of your degree with four years’ work experience is invaluable.”


To ensure that Wales is prepared for the challenges that digitalisation, automation and workplace change, which will mean the sorts of tasks people are asked to do in work will change and potentially lead to the shrinking of some occupations and the growth of others, we will need to provide people of all ages and backgrounds opportunities to access higher level skills. Degree apprenticeships are one important tool in doing so. 


Demand for degree apprenticeships has been growing across the UK in recent years. In England, there are 88 apprenticeship standards approved for delivery at bachelor’s, master’s and even PhD-level. Around 13,000 students started a degree apprenticeship in England in 2018-19 alone. In Scotland, there are 11 graduate apprenticeship frameworks and, as of August 2019, there were approximately 1,200 apprentices. 


That’s why to meet demand, and support Welsh businesses in growing into the coming decade, it is important that the success of degree apprentices is built on and expanded into other areas. Our members have highlighted a huge appetite for apprenticeships at degree (and higher levels) in areas such as quantity surveying, life sciences, law, leadership and management and construction. 


This is why we need clarity on the future funding of the degree apprenticeship programme in Wales, and why there is a need for a greater range of degree apprenticeships to be funded including at master’s level.


By doing so, we can both help support businesses to grow and, importantly, provide people with new opportunities to gain skills and qualifications that they may not have been able to access before.  


Photo by Helloquence on Unsplash

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Kieron Rees is Head of External Affairs and Policy at Universities Wales

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