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Johnny Rich on improving degree apprenticeships to create 'supergrads'

September 2018

The chief executive of the Engineering Professors' Council (EPC) explains what's wrong with degree apprenticeships and how fixing them could be a game changer for skills and diversity in the engineering sector

Who do you define as a 'supergrad'?

We use that term to describe the fact that degree apprentices have both the academic skills that you get from a traditional degree and the experience that you get from in-work training. It's the best of both worlds. However, this isn't guaranteed if degree apprenticeships aren't successfully delivered by policymakers and stakeholders.

The EPC has just published its report, Experience Enhanced, on improving degree apprenticeships. What are your aims with this publication?

We started on this about three years ago when a lot of our members were just starting to get involved in degree apprenticeships. They were launching programmes and wanted examples of best practice - but there weren't any.

In 2016 we created a toolkit to advise our members on setting up and running degree apprenticeships. But we discovered there were a lot of unknowns, so we published a consultation document called Designing success for apprenticeships in 2017. That came up with some proposed answers. Then we held events at the Royal Academy of Engineering where we got a lot of feedback from the sector, and lots of different parties from the government, our own members, academics and institutions.

We drew those together into the Experience Enhanced report, which makes over 50 recommendations. We hope these will allow us to move forward with degree apprenticeships so they can be the success we all want them to be.

Apprenticeships run the risk of being seen as an endurance, while degrees are viewed as an aspirational goal

How can the branding of degree apprenticeships be improved so they are not viewed as something less than traditional degrees?

This is something that was reported to us in our consultations and is a problem. The idea that a degree is something you achieve, whereas an apprenticeship is something that you do, means that apprenticeships run the risk of being seen as an endurance, while degrees are viewed as an aspirational goal. We're not hanging our hat on any particular solution. But if we're going to stick with this branding on degree apprenticeships then we need to work to confront the unintended implications of the name.

I talk to students and they don't always see that going to university and doing a degree apprenticeship can be the same thing. They see degrees as a higher level of achievement, so we need to present degree apprentices as 'supergrads'. We need to elevate the reputation of degree apprenticeships above that of a traditional degree.

Can you expand on your concern that degree apprenticeships can become 'employer dominated' and not 'employer led'?

Degree apprenticeships 'standards' are rulebooks put together by trailblazer groups, which are mostly large employers and a few small employers. The government set this up to ensure that degree apprenticeships responded to the needs of employers, which makes perfect sense. However, only having employers in the group means they aren't necessarily going to look at what is best in terms of the learning process and also what is in the best long-term interests of the apprentice.

Employers want to ensure that the apprentice is going to be fit to be employed at the end of the apprenticeship, so they are looking at whether the money invested in a person is going to pay back quickly. They are not necessarily looking at the apprentice's longer-term career because that person may leave to join a competitor. There is, built into the way that 'standards' are created, potential for the employer's short-term needs to be at the forefront without due attention paid to the apprentice.

Do you think employers, schools and further education institutions need to work more closely to ensure degree apprenticeships are promoted?

We need to think more about the benefits of degree apprenticeships for everybody and that means employers, higher education institutions and universities need to work more closely. Engineers have a far better record than most disciplines of working with industry, so hopefully engineering departments can lead the way in terms of establishing good practice between industry and academia. Those close links are very important and we make a lot of recommendations about how to establish those, and what's needed. Also, we make a number of recommendations around how degree apprenticeships and all apprenticeships ought to be promoted more effectively in schools.

Apprenticeships aren't always well understood by teachers. If dedicated careers staff are not well trained in understanding something, then it's going to be hard for them to talk about degree apprenticeships convincingly to young people from an early stage so students see it as one of the key pathways at 18 and beyond.

Also, it's not just about the message in schools. It's also about what's the message in employment, because a lot of degree apprenticeships are perfect as an option for upskilling existing staff.

We've got to start thinking more about who might become an engineer as a result of degree apprenticeships. We need engineering that looks a lot more like the wider population

How can degree apprenticeships support social mobility and the widening participation agenda?

In engineering there's a huge skills shortage. One estimate is we need 29,000 more engineers at graduate level per year – that's a lot more than we are currently producing. How are we going to increase the number of engineers? How are we going to increase the skills?

If we carry on recruiting the people who we have recruited in the past - basically white males - then we are already digging as deep into that mine as we possibly can. We've got to start thinking more about who else might become an engineer as a result of degree apprenticeships. We need engineering that looks a lot more like the wider population, and the way to attract new people in is to offer them something new. Degree apprenticeships are something new. They get rid of the obstacle of tuition fees, which it is argued are a barrier for those from poorer backgrounds.

No one knows at the moment who is taking up engineering apprenticeships. I've had a lot of discussions and some people say they are getting a different kind of apprentice coming in, and others are saying they look much the same but they tend to be quite highly able.

Degree apprenticeships at the moment are skimming off the top rather than opening up at the bottom. There is a danger that they are appealing to the best students who might previously have become traditional students, instead of appealing to a whole new group. We've got to reframe them to make sure that people who wouldn't have considered university or engineering look at both of those options and go 'actually, yeah, this could work for me because I can do it as a degree apprenticeship'.

We know that SMEs employ the majority of workers in the engineering sector - how can degree apprenticeships be made attractive so it's not just larger firms that are taking advantage of these opportunities?

One of the key problems is that trailblazer groups tend to only have two representatives from SMEs around the table. It's much harder to be representative of them because big companies can stand up for themselves, whereas small companies don't always have the time or energy.

As an SME, it's not easy to get your head around what is needed to set up an apprenticeship, and because they don’t pay the apprenticeship levy there isn’t the necessity to do it. They don't see the money leaving their bank balance, so they question why they need to engage.

In most SMEs nobody has time to engage with anything that is not mission critical. Degree apprenticeships are complex for a big company, and even more so for SMEs as they don't have the infrastructure to manage the relationship with the university and the creation of in-work training. Even though there are financial incentives, a much more nurturing environment is needed to encourage degree apprenticeships among SMEs.

Do you think the differences in apprenticeship policy across the four nations of the UK has been a major issue for businesses?

It certainly makes life more complicated. We already have devolved education systems that are becoming more and more different, and this does make it difficult to recruit for a nationwide business. You have to think about different strategies for the different nations of the UK. Also, it means that a degree apprenticeship doesn't transfer as effectively across borders.

We are not calling for the whole of the UK to follow the same pattern, as this is not achievable. What we need is better alignment so any clashes are smoothed out to make it easier for national businesses to operate in all four nations. We need solutions that will work with modifications in each nation.

What do you hope will happen next?

The government needs to pay attention. We are still at the stage where degree apprenticeships could be a game changer, but they won't be if the government doesn't build up an evidence-base of what works - getting the stakeholders involved, presenting it to the potential apprentices so they want to do it, and also funding it properly.

There's a big question over the amount of money that is being collected through the apprenticeship levy and not being spent. The government needs to think about whether its rules are too restrictive about spending that money. Some of it could be channelled into promoting degree apprenticeships and careers advice.

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