Degree-level Apprenticeships: An Important Part of the Jigsaw

It is no stretch to state that the UK is facing a skills crisis right now. The re-opening of the economy, combined with an exodus of overseas workers, has led to the worst labour shortage that the UK has seen since the 1990s. Anybody who has tried to fill up a petrol or diesel car in the last two months will know this. According to the Recruitment and Employment Confederation’s latest analysis, nine in ten recruiters say that labour shortages are their biggest concern. The need to develop homegrown talent has never been so acute, and apprenticeships will play an essential role in this.

While it is a widely-accepted fact that apprenticeships form an important part of our skills ecosystem, there has been endless debate about ‘parity of esteem’ between academia and what is now dubbed as ‘technical’ training. A false dichotomy has emerged which pitches lower-level apprenticeships against higher or degree-level apprenticeships. The truth is that we need all of these things to sustain a healthy pipeline of talent which serves all sectors of our economy.

There is much political rhetoric about ‘levelling-up. Politicians promise to build a highly-skilled workforce with better wages for all, but the reality is that jobs are needed in all corners of the economy and at all levels. It would be disingenuous to claim that degree-level apprenticeships are a panacea to all of our nation’s challenges, but they will play an increasingly important role in our economic recovery and future prosperity.

At DSW we have had the pleasure of working with employers and training providers to help them understand both the benefits and requirements of End Point Assessment (EPA). As an End Point Assessment Organisation (EPAO), we are approved by the Education & Skills Funding Agency to EPA 37 apprenticeship standards, which includes 8 degree-level apprenticeships. This year we have seen the first major cohorts of degree-level apprentices pass through gateway and successfully complete their EPA. These programmes have been transformative for apprentices and their employers alike. The value of an apprenticeship extends far beyond that of a professional qualification. More and more employers are beginning to recognise this, particularly with the added rigour of an independent EPA. While the qualification demonstrates that an individual has the underpinning knowledge required within their role, successful completion of the EPA proves that they have also demonstrated the skills and behaviours which are essential in putting that knowledge into practice and demonstrating true occupational competence. Having this independently verified by an industry expert adds further kudos and currency, providing the apprentice with a passport to career progression and future development. Many of the apprentices we have assessed have gone on to achieve promotions in their place of work – this is particularly true at the higher levels. From the apprentice’s point of view, it is a ‘win-win’ scenario, earning while learning and gaining sought-after promotions without incurring any debt.

What does the future hold?

The number of degree-level apprenticeships continues to grow. At the time of writing there are 638 apprenticeship standards approved for delivery; 150 of these are at levels 6 and 7. There has been some criticism of degree-level apprenticeships, much of it from within the FE sector. There is a sense that they somehow distract from the traditional core audience of 16-24 years olds at levels 2 and 3. However, this is an outdated view, based on old preconceptions about what an apprenticeship is. The whole point in the reforms was to deliver an apprenticeship landscape which is better suited to the needs of employers and one which would raise the profile and status of apprenticeships as a ‘first choice’ for learners – including those who are academically capable.

DSW Viewpoint

As somebody who has been heavily invested in apprenticeships since the reforms began, I am confident that degree-level apprenticeships absolutely have their place within the system and represent true value to individuals, employers and the wider economy as a whole. They are accessible to everybody and I have seen an abundance of evidence to demonstrate their effectiveness. We should embrace all apprenticeships and recognise that, if we are to thrive in this changing world, we need a healthy mix of different types of training, at different levels and across all areas of our economy.