Ofsted doesn’t ‘get’ higher education, says Greg Walker, and is not the right regulator for degree apprenticeship courses. Inspectors don’t understand how they work – or how they are delivered

Degree apprenticeships have been a significant success of the government’s aim to improve productivity and skills. They have been embraced by modern universities with long track records in professional, technical and vocational education, and enhanced their strong partnerships with local employers.

Degree apprenticeships sit at the heart of the levelling-up and social mobility agendas. The early nurturing of this provision by modern universities has shown this new and exciting development in learning and earning can play a fundamental role in economic growth, especially in the post-Covid era.

With such exciting potential, it is extremely disappointing to see the government clipping the wings of this policy before it has a chance to really fly. The proposal, based on a recommendation in the Augar review, for all apprenticeships provision, at whatever level, to be regulated by Ofsted is a worrying and unnecessary one.

Ofsted is a school and college inspectorate with a great deal of experience in its field. That does not, however, mean it is suitable to regulate the complex, diverse educational provision in higher education. Universities have a strong, robust system of regulation and governance, drawing on decades of experience and underpinned by rigorous quality assurance processes. This means a university learning experience, especially one that involves partnerships with employers, is very different to what a typical Ofsted inspector will be familiar with.

We have already seen some issues with Ofsted oversight of university provision. A tricky compromise between Ofsted and the Office for Students (OfS) meant the former reviews some elements of level 4 and 5 apprenticeships offered by universities. This has been a challenging experience for universities, dealing with a significant lack of understanding and a desire by Ofsted to simply overlay a wider inspection framework on to university learning. It has led to worrying assumptions that did not match reality – including seeing drastically different judgments about teaching excellence from the OfS’s TEF evaluation and from Ofsted inspectors, despite both organisations reviewing the same provision.

Ofsted’s leadership has not reassured stakeholders in higher education with comments on degree apprenticeships that seem to be based on misconceptions. It has been said that apprenticeships policy should focus on lower skill levels and should fundamentally be about delivering opportunities to young people. This ignores the employer-led nature of apprenticeships, and the benefits to the economy of higher level and degree apprenticeships.

If this proposal becomes policy, Ofsted should endeavour to engage with the HE sector in a constructive, open fashion to ensure that the inspection framework reflects higher education practice and is fit for purpose in being applied to levels 6/7 delivered in a university context. Another major improvement would be to amend the criteria to become an Ofsted inspector for degree apprenticeship provision so that it is obligatory to have had HE academic employment experience to review university-based provision. The current specifications make little allowance for this.

The most worrying element of the new proposal is the suggestion that there is nothing to be concerned about because Ofsted will concentrate only on the skills and training element of an apprenticeship. This suggestion itself demonstrates a major flaw in the understanding of how degree apprenticeships work and are delivered. They are designed to be integrated, dovetailing the experiences of theoretical learning in the classroom and the practical application in the workplace. These are not two elements that exist separately. They work seamlessly, and at their best enable the apprentice to see the fundamental links between theory and practice, and combine their experience and understanding to build high-level professional skills and knowledge.

The Institute for Apprenticeships and Technical Education recognises this integrated approach as a leading model of good practice for both learning and assessment. The degree is not an optional extra to the apprenticeship standard – it is integral to it.