Keele University

I have spent much of the last 12 months immersed in degree and higher apprenticeships – the government policy, the emergent literature, the often impenetrable funding rules, the tentative lessons learned from colleagues in the sector.

One thing is crystal clear: this new model, once successfully navigated, presents an immense opportunity for the sector. Applied and contextualised learning offers an opportunity to re-evaluate the academic benefits of the skills derived from the pursuit of knowledge and rigour. This is an opportunity to understand how the cycle of academic learning and application in the workplace can forge a new, but nonetheless academic, pedagogy.

I have a personal agenda in better understanding the relationship between academic knowledge and its benefits to vocation. It resonates with me and probably many others in the profession who have engaged in continuing professional development (CPD), whether accredited by higher education or otherwise, and have applied our learning and knowledge back into the workplace. This purposeful lifelong learning leads to different perspectives on workplace challenges. The academic professional apprenticeship, as a demonstration of institutional commitment to training of our early career teachers and researchers, will go a long way to developing a culture of understanding of the new agenda in universities.

It now seems a long time ago since early discussions about apprenticeships. Would an apprentice have ‘by apprenticeship’ on their degree certificate? How might apprenticeships differ from existing provision? Of course, as higher education providers, we wouldn’t want to distinguish between degrees awarded by apprenticeship. The certificate of apprenticeship and development of competency and skills in a role is sufficient to do that.

It is our responsibility to ensure that we talk extensively about the academic viability of learning via this route, challenge reductionist approaches to labelling degree apprenticeships as purely vocational and demonstrate broadly their academic parity and international transferability.

As part of Keele University’s recent activity funded by the Degree Apprenticeships Development Fund, we are seeking to heighten understanding of the academic value of the apprenticeship model within the institution, with employers and with prospective apprentices. Part of this work has been done through communicating about apprenticeships with key stakeholders and committees and engaging both a specialist curriculum and operational group in the university.

We recently held a university-wide ‘Degrees of Experience’ event with the University Vocational Awards Council and senior presenters from the institution. Held in the same week as our Learning and Teaching Conference, we garnered a similar audience. The key messages were clear: apprenticeships will impact on all areas of the institution; they are not just about vocational learning; and, they are heavily embedded in the government’s Industrial Strategy. They are also critical to the nature of the university’s future engagement with employers, CPD, graduate employability or otherwise.

We are also keen to spread the message of degree apprenticeships being of equal academic value to bright young people, whether they are Keele-bound or heading elsewhere. We want them to understand that a degree apprenticeship is not a dilution; it is not a purely vocational endeavour.

In a world of mixed messages about apprenticeships in the media, we want young people to know that this route is valued equally alongside traditional learning and is likely to enhance their employability significantly. We are producing a short video to communicate the parity of esteem of the apprenticeship route, which includes the authentic voices of stakeholders from the senior level in our institution, academics and an apprentice.

At a recent event, employers indicated the value that a vocational and academic curriculum has as part of a degree apprenticeship. Whilst discussing how universities and employers might work well together (without directly discussing apprenticeships), there were clear messages about the value of models of degree delivery that afforded real and sustained application in a work context. ‘I just wish we could get to students in year one’, remarked one employer. ‘Year three and after graduation is just too late.’

This desire for employers to be able to influence and capitalise on the skills of degree level learners from the early stages presents a strong case for apprenticeships and a challenge to institutions to think about what this might mean for the employability agenda.

Sure, we are monitoring the impact of degree apprenticeships on graduate traineeships as it might have an impact on graduate outcomes and institutional employability data. But what might this new agenda mean for our graduate attributes, the way we define the alumni we unleash into the world of employment? What might our academic curriculum mean and how might it be transformed when embedded in a work-based context?

As a sector, degree apprenticeships present an opportunity to remodel and understand the currency of our academic values from an industry perspective.

See all blog posts on apprenticeships