The IfA’s review of the DTSP will be a key test of whether it really listens to employers (and apprentices), says Mandy Crawford-Lee

The Institute for Apprenticeships (IfA) has started a review of existing standards on the digital route, which includes the flagship Digital Technology Solutions Professional (DTSP) degree apprenticeship.

To date the DTSP has been the most successful degree apprenticeship. It is used by employers that include Accenture, Capgemini, IBM, Lloyds Bank, Fujitsu and Quicksilva and it’s being offered by a growing number of leading institutions, including Aston University, BPP, the Open University, Manchester Metropolitan University, the University of Portsmouth and the University of Salford.

We’ve also seen some really new and innovative delivery partnerships that also involve colleges and independent training providers. Employers love it, as do individuals, and early evidence from the Department for Education’s Degree Apprenticeship Development Fund projects suggest it’s having a positive impact on attracting women into tech roles.

There’s one major negative: the twice-run Education and Skills Funding Agency procurement for non-levy-paying employers means a postcode lottery in the availability of DTSP provision for SMEs. But overall we’ve got the rare example of an English approach to vocational learning that’s applauded and, more importantly, is working for employers and fulfilling the objectives of the apprenticeship programme.

So in terms of the IfA review, if it’s meeting a major skills need, is supported by employers and is starting to make an impact on widening participation and access, then given a bit of updating this should be a formality, shouldn’t it?

Unfortunately, no. The problem is the IfA’s so-called “faster and better” approach to approving apprenticeship standards and assessment plans introduced earlier this year, with negligible consultation. And, more specifically, its mandatory qualification rule.

A trailblazer can only specify a mandatory qualification in an apprenticeship standard, including a degree, if it’s a requirement of a professional body, regulator or used in hard-sifting for job interviews.

This will be a key test of whether it believes in degree apprenticeships

The DTSP meets none of these requirements. If the IfA applies its mandatory qualifications rule to the DTSP, the degree will be removed and the IfA will scuttle its own flagship apprenticeship standard.

This would be a tragedy. The trailblazer, large employers and SMEs have all emphasised the importance of the degree in the apprenticeship and its role in opening up a new talent pipeline to senior level digital occupations. Every DTSP degree apprentice I’ve met says the degree is essential to the credibility and standing of the apprenticeship and is a, if not the, key reason why they chose the apprenticeship route.

To resolve this “problem” UVAC has proposed to the Office for Students (OfS, the higher education regulator), the DfE and the IfA that for the institute’s mandatory qualification, the following criterion be introduced:

“Employers through the trailblazer process can also specify a mandatory degree in an apprenticeship where they can demonstrate its inclusion will support social mobility and is in the interests of employers in the sector (eg, the degree ‘professionalises’ an occupation, helps attract new talent, raises performance standards for the occupation).”

Given the OfS’s role in protecting the student interest, and the importance to a student of a degree in terms of national and international recognition, transferability and the breadth of skills developed, OfS supports our proposal. Not to put too fine a point on it, the IfA’s mandatory qualification rule when applied in higher education runs counter to the student interest – it is OfS’s role to protect this “interest”. I also suspect the DfE will want to ensure the future success of the DTSP. But the decision will rest with the IfA.

The IfA’s approach to the review of the DTSP will be a key test of whether it believes in degree apprenticeships, whether it really listens to employers, if it wants to transform apprenticeship in England into an aspirational choice and if it’s committed to ensuring we have an employer-led apprenticeship programme that delivers the skills needed by the UK economy. We would support leaving this one to carry on as it is without tinkering and, instead, concentrate review resources on standards that are less successful at delivering core objectives.