Raise profile of degree apprenticeships or see them falter, universities warn

Aspirations to ramp up degree apprenticeships in England will be stifled unless the government raises the profile of the courses, universities have warned.   

FE and HE minister Michelle Donelan told universities this week to set “ambitious targets” to boost the proportion of students studying degree apprenticeships, as part of an order to rewrite their plans around access and participation.   

Universities will need their plans signed off by the Office for Students’ new director for fair access and participation, John Blake, in order to be able to charge higher fees.   

The degree apprenticeship targets will be decided upon in conjunction with the OfS, although there will not be a one size fits all approach, the Department for Education confirmed.   

University representative bodies have welcomed the move, but warn of several challenges that could hinder the ambition.   

Rachel Hewitt, chief executive of MillionPlus, told FE Week a key issue for her members surrounds “a relative lack of student demand” for degree apprenticeships.   

“To address this, perhaps the place for the government to start would be on helping to raise the profile of these courses,” she said.   

“Moves to make the courses less bureaucratic, particularly around the end-point assessment, would also go some way to make degree apprenticeships more appealing to providers.”   

A spokesperson for Universities Alliance said: “To help ensure people access the provision that is right for them, the government should commit to practical initiatives in partnership with employers, apprenticeship providers and post-16 providers to raise the profile and benefits of higher and degree apprenticeships.”   

They added that the process for setting targets must acknowledge that apprenticeships are an employer-led system and take account of the local context, including current and future demand for higher-level skills in different sectors.   

“Targets should also not be set in a policy vacuum ̶ many universities will be delivering at least some of their apprenticeship provision at a loss, and several questions remain on apprenticeship funding, as well as the demand and financing for higher technical qualifications,” the spokesperson told FE Week.   

Degree apprenticeships’ popularity has soared since their launch in 2015. Data published by parliament shows there were around 1,000 starts recorded in that year, which increased to over 13,500 in 2018/19. This is, however, still much smaller than the number of undergraduates in England which stood at 455,000 at the time.   

Education select committee chair Robert Halfon challenged Donelan on the DfE’s work in this area during an accountability hearing last month, during which he said there should be a target of having 50 per cent of students doing degree apprenticeships.   

In response, Donelan said: “I share your passion on degree apprenticeships. We have come a long way but there is a long way to go. If we look at the stats, degree apprenticeships increased by 80 per cent despite the pandemic but it is not good enough. I want every university to be holding degree apprenticeships, not one or two.”   

She went on to say that her department was exploring whether to introduce financial incentives to entice more universities to offer degree apprenticeships.   

Cash incentives are absent from this week’s announcement, but Donelan insisted that all plans to widen participation in areas like degree apprenticeships must be drawn up with “needless complexity and bureaucracy cut out”.   

A Russell Group university spokesperson said over half of their members already deliver higher and degree apprenticeships and they “look forward to building on their existing work with colleges and businesses, offering a range of options to young people and supporting them through university and into the world of work”.   

Professor Steve West, president of Universities UK and vice-chancellor of UWE Bristol, added: “It is positive to see a focus on part-time courses, higher technical qualifications and degree apprenticeships and we look forward to working with government to boost demand for more diverse and flexible ways of learning.” 

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