We have been working with employers, apprentices and governmental bodies to develop the Degree Apprenticeship programmes at the University of Birmingham. As interest grows and programmes commence, many employers have the same questions.

We want to take this opportunity to share what we have learnt, both for would-be apprentices as well as employers thinking about a programme, alongside our thoughts for the future.

What are we doing at the University of Birmingham?

The University currently works with a wide range of employers from across the private, public and third sectors, including business, local government and the NHS against a range of Level 6 and Level 7 Apprenticeship Standards. Our programmes with PwC and Vodafone, delivered against the Digital and Technology Solutions Professional Level 6 standard, combine university life with practical work-based technology projects at the companies to address the skills gaps the companies have identified within their business.

We also provide postgraduate-level courses at Level 7 focusing on the Senior Leader Level 7 standard, covering our Executive MBA and MSc Public Management and Leadership alongside an MSc in Health and Care System and Leadership.

As employers define what knowledge, skills and behaviours they require, Degree Apprenticeship programmes can deliver consistent and appropriate training in specialised areas, such as electrical engineering in railway systems and Educational Leadership. The University is currently working with a range of employers to develop further degree apprenticeship programmes in sectors such as: Civil Engineering, the Food Industry, Healthcare, Materials Science, and Law.

What could stop Degree Apprenticeships from gaining traction with potential apprentices?

There is a need to improve the understanding of Degree Apprenticeships in schools, with potential apprentices and with their parents. Apprenticeships have often been seen as the poor cousin of Bachelor degree qualifications, however this should certainly no longer be the case. There is a clear benefit to obtaining a qualification that provides both practical, vocational learning and an accredited degree qualification upon completion. Learners on these programmes will also benefit from a paid salary throughout the programme as an employee of the sponsoring organisation and no requirement to pay tuition fees or take out a student loan.

Ground is being made here: two years ago, only 40% of the school population had any knowledge of Degree Apprenticeships, but this has now risen to 70%. However, there are still steps to be taken around widening participation on these programmes, making them more accessible to those who would most benefit from fee-free study and the “earn as you learn” approach. Interestingly, from a gender-inclusivity perspective, we have noted that the proportion of female applicants to our Digital Technology Solutions Professional Degree Apprenticeship programme was higher than our standard BSc programme and we continue to look at this trend for future learnings.

For Level 7 Degree Apprenticeships, the key issue is often balancing a learner’s training requirements with their job commitments and personal time. The employer needs to work together with them to ascertain how best to fit the educational programme in with workplace needs and all parties need to demonstrate flexibility to make it work.

What does an employer need to think about while developing a Degree Apprenticeship?

As well as working closely with a training provider to enrol learners on a programme, there has to be a genuine collaboration in order for it to work well, and getting senior level buy-in from an employer is important to ensure the right processes are in place to deliver success.

What is equally important is the understanding that an apprenticeship programme is a journey, often over several years, where apprentices will develop in their role. A line manager needs to ensure an appropriate level of support and opportunity is provided to the apprentice and that the requirement for “off-the-job” training is being managed.

Employers need to consider why they are starting a Degree Apprenticeship scheme. It shouldn’t just be a numbers game when utilising the Apprenticeship Levy, but needs to be done for the right reasons, where an employer can effectively identify their skills gaps and where their employees need additional training. Over and above the contribution from the Levy, there are often additional costs, such as payroll and administration so focus on quality rather than quantity and get the right framework in place. There are also considerations about what Degree Apprenticeship programmes mean for an employer’s traditional recruitment model.

What about the training provider? How should you choose one?

From a training provider perspective, it takes a lot of time and dedication to set up Degree Apprenticeship programmes. There is a requirement to adhere to an extensive set of rules around standards and ensure consistent mapping for quality assurance to access funding. At the University of Birmingham, we have set up a new team to provide the focus for this, with a focus on government policy and engaging the Institute for Apprenticeships (IfA) alongside employer knowledge and academic understanding.

The Degree Apprenticeship team needs an understanding of the complex environment in which apprenticeships operate, such as strong working relationships with the appropriate government bodies and the wider higher education sector. Also look for senior level sponsorship of the programme at the University so that you know Degree Apprenticeships will be embedded into the institution and will have the right level of focus for success.

Ensure that the training provider you work with has a focused approach on developing or recruiting to a programme based on your requirements as an employer. Although it is a partnership, it needs to be employer-led, with the HEI able to flex its programme design around the wants and needs of an employer. Make sure your programme is a tailored solution, for example that a Senior Leader programme draws on relevant training for that sector, be it in Education or Healthcare for instance.

What is in the future for Degree Apprenticeships?

We see Degree Apprenticeships taking on a greater share of our student portfolio here at the University of Birmingham. In order for them to be successful and support industry needs over the longer term, we want to have stability and consistency from policy makers, to allow us to benchmark and learn. A clearer understanding from government that extends beyond 2020 would also help, alongside increased flexibility and we are already starting to see this happen as training providers participate more in the discussions. Sir Gerry Berragan, CEO of the IfA, highlighted only last week, the need for the IfA to expand their knowledge of HEIs, which is encouraging to hear.