The introduction of the Apprenticeship Levy on 6 April has catapulted Degree Apprenticeships into the spotlight. Employers with a pay bill of £3 million or more are in the process of formulating plans to operationalise their Levy spend. While these plans will inevitably focus on apprenticeships at all levels, for Degree Apprenticeships, in particular, the levy looks to be a game changer. It will act as a catalyst for growth in breadth of subject areas available, the scale of opportunities on offer to existing employees looking to up skill, and alternative degree pathways for people starting out on a new career.
A recent report by Universities UK published the results of a survey of more than sixty universities and higher education institutions, which indicated 91 per cent of these HEIs were actively engaging with Degree Apprenticeships, either through programme level pilots or through organisation-wide developments. Many universities, including Manchester Metropolitan, are poised to meet the exponential growth in employer demand that looks likely to hit us in the next few months. At the same time we face the possibility that employers may instead focus levy expenditure on apprenticeships at sub-degree level and, moreover, there is, as always, fierce competition within the sector. The fact that HEIs, including my own, Manchester Metropolitan University, have been prepared to enter this new territory, to take calculated risks and to forge ahead with new ways of engaging with employers and student-apprentices is evidence of the strength of our sector. We have also demonstrated that, contrary to popular opinion, universities can be fleet of foot, speedily responding to almost real-time policy announcements and regulatory changes.
Degree Apprenticeships offer an educational path that combines the academic knowledge, the professional behaviours and the technical skills, needed by employers here and now and by students to progress rapidly in their present and future careers. Our first cohort of sixty Degree Apprentices in Digital started in September 2015; they are already achieving well beyond expectation, academically and professionally. First and foremost, this is testament to the commitment and hard work of the apprentices, but also to the enthusiasm of the academic teams and the active support of our partner employers.
We are hugely proud of the progress that we have made in partnership with employers and our pioneering degree apprentices. There have been and continue to be, however, internal and external challenges to the development and delivery of new programmes. All universities new to apprenticeships will experience complications navigating the systems and processes required for effective development, complex funding, reporting requirements, employer engagement and different models of delivery and student support, to name but a few. However, with internal support from senior management and through the commitment of resources these can be overcome.
What can be a more significant challenge is the very short time that providers have between an appropriate apprenticeship standard being approved and programmes needing to be ready for delivery. While the fundamental building blocks of the Trailblazer process, with employers always taking centre stage, is the right approach, without strong academic leadership the journey can be slow and sometimes frustrating. On rare occasions this can lead to employers and institutions being ready to move forward with a new apprenticeship, but having to pause and wait for a standard to clear due process.
I was pleased to hear of the recent HEFCE announcement of the second round of funding for Degree Apprenticeship development. While we are allocating significant internal resources to developing degree apprenticeships, the opportunity to bid for additional funds to support programme development in areas of acute business need is positive news.
Manchester Metropolitan University welcomes the linked commitments to closing the skills gap and to enhancing educational and career opportunities for all. The Education Secretary has spoken of placing technical education at the heart of social mobility through the creation of 3 million apprenticeships. However, these traditional categorisations of education into the technical and the academic, risk us continuing to divide our young people into those who will learn to labour and those who will learn to lead. Degree apprenticeships offer something different through their combination of the professional and the academic, the theoretical and the practical.
As we approach the general election, I hope we see a firm commitment from all parties to support the continued growth of Degree Apprenticeships and that there is recognition of the vital role they can play in driving up productivity and giving new opportunities to people of all ages.
Professor Malcolm Press
Vice-Chancellor, Manchester Metropolitan University