DEGREE apprenticeships have taken a fair amount of stick in some parts of the media recently – they’ve been labelled everything from fake to overly complex – with a series of critical reports published over the last few months. And the apprenticeship levy has been at the heart of that criticism.
The system isn’t perfect – the approval of apprenticeship standards is too long and complicated – and many businesses still don’t understand the levy and how to properly use it.
But the evidence shows that higher and degree level apprenticeships do work, and not just for school leavers working in traditional industries. They work for people of all ages and backgrounds.
They are supporting people into employment as well as helping those locked in low-skilled employment to progress their career – providing opportunities to reskill.
If the Government is serious about supporting left-behind areas and opening access to higher education to people from non-traditional backgrounds, degree apprenticeships are one of the ways to do it. At Sheffield Hallam University, 44 per cent of our apprentices are from low participation backgrounds, compared to 41 per cent of our undergraduate students.
More than half are over the age of 21 when they start, with around 15 per cent over the age of 35 wanting to upskill or reskill. Part of the criticism apprenticeships have faced recently is the use of the levy for management-level training and development of staff already in the business.
My response to that is: why wouldn’t you want your staff to develop new skills? If there is an opportunity to improve productivity in your organisation through new knowledge and skills, why wouldn’t you take it?
We work with many organisations who have significant skills gaps so extreme that recruitment alone will not suffice, consequently they are increasingly developing long term perspectives and strategies, for talent management and development using the levy. In a pre-levy world, many of our apprentices would not be retraining and upskilling, instead their talents would be wasted or underutilised.
A prime example is one of our own apprentices here at Sheffield Hallam. Sam Dales has worked in the NHS for 10 years and couldn’t take the next step in her career without the requisite new knowledge and formal qualification. She is now studying as a healthcare science degree apprentice with the hope of becoming a cardiac physiologist once qualified.
Her apprenticeship will transform her career prospects and is helping to develop a skilled NHS workforce for the future – supporting productivity and progression opportunities.
Health professions such as physiotherapy and occupational therapy are just a couple of the innovative industries that apprenticeships are available in. There is a particular skills shortage in technical occupations like Engineering, Construction and Digital where graduates are in high demand and through the levy companies can now develop their own talent.
Locally, we have worked with digital software company Servelec to set up a digital academy with 12 junior software developers. The bespoke degree apprenticeship will see the apprentices receiving a Digital and Technology Solutions Professional degree qualification and a permanent position with Servelec.
But it can’t be done by a single agency – one university, one business. For apprenticeships to work, there needs to be central government action as well as regional leadership to ensure the skills and productivity needs are met.
We need the Government to invest, we need them to raise awareness, we need them to engage businesses – including SMEs who are at the heart of regions across the UK and arguably have the most to gain from apprenticeships.
By putting employers at the heart of any degree apprenticeship strategy, and by working closely with providers like Sheffield Hallam who see the value and have the facilities and skills to support new apprenticeships, we will see the tide turning on the perception of apprenticeships.
We need to change the rhetoric around apprenticeships – from MPs and government ministers, from the media and eventually the public – only then will they be regarded as a genuine alternative route to a degree.
Conor Moss is director of the National Centre of Excellence for Degree Apprenticeships.