A new kind of university experience

Degree apprenticeships should be a key part of a diverse education system. 

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Workplaces are changing. The nature of work is being transformed. This poses a tough question: how do we re-purpose our education and training institutions to meet the challenges of diversification and flexibility? When a picture editor is called on to provide an image for a news item about universities, he or she tends to fall back on one of two options: the picture of the ivy-covered walls of an ancient foundation – there really is nothing like a dome – or the picture of fresh young faces on graduation day in academic robes. Often, the images are combined: graduating students on lawns in front of ivy-covered walls. This is how universities are represented most often in the news.

It creates an image about universities - that they are cut off from their communities, cloistered, facing inwards. It’s an idea of the university which comes from the Middle Ages. The place of universities in our education, innovation and skills system is one we have to shift, and along with it, public perceptions.

There is good evidence this is not only possible, but actively achievable. My own university, Sheffield Hallam, believes in creating opportunities by working with others, especially employers, to design education and training programmes so more people can do more things. We reject the idea of universities as outside society, set back and distant from the world around us. We reject the lazy distinction drawn between academic and vocational training.

That’s demonstrable in our approach to championing new alternative career pathways, such as degree apprenticeships. Through these courses, learners attend university, but spend most of their time in the workplace, putting academic learning into practical use. The employer's apprenticeship levy meets the course fee, whilst apprentices receive an ongoing salary and ultimately a degree. This develops employees with stronger skills - be they new members of staff or those upskilling to progress their career - by balancing paid, real-world experience alongside formal university training.

These routes are a product of our partnerships with, for example, Network Rail and Kier, to develop the engineers and housebuilders of the future. We work with a number of SMEs across Sheffield City Region and beyond to build a workforce that can drive innovation and growth. 

This benefits the economy and society. A more flexible system of advanced education is accessible to more people. Close co-operation between universities and employers develops stronger work-related skills in graduates. It provides a basis for lifelong learning. And it narrows the two century old English division between academic and vocational pursuits.

The nation may be at a tipping point: transforming the relationship between universities and employers, between the academic and the vocational, between those that see university as a rite of passage and those that see it as a closed door. To achieve a truly diverse education system would have knock-on impacts, particularly for regions with low productivity such as ours in the North.

At Sheffield Hallam, we are driving change through joint recruitment activities with employers and we expect to see our 1000th degree apprentice through our doors this year. This is already helping to develop a more diverse workforce. On one of our degree apprenticeship computer science courses, for example, the proportion of BAME students is double what it is on the full-time equivalent course. Degree apprenticeships are not just for young people coming from school or college. We have recruited a number of apprentices over 50 and, this September, welcomed mother and daughter apprentices joining the same course.

Last week we opened a new National Centre of Excellence for Degree Apprenticeships. This provides bespoke learning and teaching space for apprentices, specialist IT facilities and informal areas to support group work and networking.  It is co-located with the new Hallam i-Lab, a business incubator and co-working space for students, graduates and academics, offering a dynamic and collaborative environment where innovation and creativity can flourish.

But with any tipping point comes risk, and degree apprenticeships are no exception, as a result of familiar challenges: cost-saving pressures, complexity and confusion. Innovation always carries a cost premium; however, the Institute for Apprenticeships (IfA) is proposing reductions to a number of funding bands for apprenticeships which put delivery at risk before programmes are established. At a minimum, there should be stable funding which recognises degree apprenticeships involve significant costs for universities and employers.

Just as universities are actively leading degree apprenticeships they are threatened. The IfA is proposing to downgrade the attainment of degree apprenticeships by allowing reference to mere "degree-level" apprenticeships. It's a bad move. It would weaken the value of these new pathways just as they are gathering steam. 

Complexity in the system must be tackled by making it easier for employers to determine the right degree apprenticeship for their business, whilst procedures for creating new programmes should be streamlined.

A coherent and substantial publicity campaign to raise awareness of the benefits of degree apprenticeships is required, developed with government and universities, aimed at perspective learners and employers.

Universities play a critical role in the delivery of advanced technical skills. The development of degree apprenticeships supports the Government's ambition set out in the terms of reference for the ongoing Post-18 Education and Funding Review. They offer a historic opportunity to close a very British division between academic and technical qualifications and to begin to draw together an advanced education system fit for the twenty-first century. 

If the right balance can be struck, and appropriate incentives and support are provided, the benefits of degree apprenticeships could be significant, but only if persistent issues of confusion, complexity and cost-cutting are addressed.

To find out more about degree apprenticeships at Sheffield Hallam, please click here

Professor Sir Chris Husbands is vice-chancellor of Sheffield Hallam University.