With skills gaps in the workforce and young people put off university by the prospect of debt, are apprenticeship degrees the way forward?
A relatively new career pathway, the apprenticeship degree combines vocational training with a full degree. Students are paid a salary and do not have to cover the cost of their tuition. Current employers providing degree apprenticeships include Cap Gemini, Ford, ITV, BBC, Airbus, Rolls-Royce, and Barclays.
However, interviews with students, parents and employers, reveal some challenges. These include raising awareness of the courses, improving communication between employers and course providers, and the development of an infrastructure to support this unique group of learners.
The student view
The construction industry, in particular, has embraced degree apprenticeships. However, even within this one industry, students have very different experiences. One of the students interviewed spends 4 days out of 5 at work and studies at college on a face-to-face course on the fifth day. The other studies online, but with full day lessons for each module.
Given the competitive work environment, both students could see the benefit of not having to wait to graduate from university before beginning their career. Both felt well supported by their direct colleagues and valued the industry insight and help that being in the workplace provided.
"I don't feel as stressed as I think everyone is so supportive of it. They know what it is like to be where you are."
The face-to-face student
However, the face-to-face learning student felt there was poor communication between her company and her university.
"There is meant to be an apprenticeship co-ordinator, but we haven't really heard from her. Right now, it doesn't feel as though I am applying anything from my job."
As a result, she felt that she hadn’t benefitted from the synergies that a degree apprenticeship should be able to provide. It also made her more anxious about managing the two areas of her life.
"The schedule for revision classes is not compatible with workdays, but there is no communication between them. If the workload gets too heavy how will my company know?"
Although the course was face to face, ‘day release’ courses lack the immersive nature of regular degrees, where students bond in a domestic and social setting as well as through learning together.
"There was no induction to get people to fit in. The uni could do more. The friends I have made are from Kent – so I don't see them outside classes."
With neither the regular contact of a traditional degree, nor the communications infrastructure of an online degree, teaching staff can feel distant. On site resources are not convenient.
"I've never been to the library and I'm not sure how it works. It's a bit alien. It's not somewhere I want to go."
The online student
In contrast, the student on the online course was highly satisfied. Two elements were key to her positive experience.
Firstly, close communication between her employers and her university. This meant that her work projects applied and reinforced her learning. She felt that the university valued the contract more than if she had been a student studying a regular degree, and therefore made sure that they provided a professional service.
Secondly, she appreciated the high level of engagement and availability of the teaching staff. Although the course was online, a face-to-face/in person/on campus induction meant she had met with the tutors. They provided clear office hours, rapid response times and feedback to assignments.
"I can message my tutor anything as nothing is wasting his time. You feel valued."
The parent view
For most students, their parents, carers or guardians play an important role when it comes to the university process. And whilst 17- and 18-year olds often appear confident and independent, talking to their parents reveals how challenging this period can be, particularly for those young people who can’t see a clear path ahead.
"He had no idea what he wanted to do next and it has been a difficult process helping arrive at what he wanted to do next. He was tempted to not go at all and have a year out... He got very confused and felt huge pressure to know what he should do."
For students who are eager to be financially independent and to begin earning, university can feel as though it is taking them in the wrong direction:
"He's always wanted to work. He's worked since he was 14, paper round, garden centre, Waitrose. That's why the apprenticeship scheme appealed to him. Trying to get him not to think about the debt has been challenging."
A degree apprenticeship can be the ideal way forward. However, despite careers teams promoting traditional apprenticeships - for example, in retail - parents felt that the degree apprenticeship information was too sparse to point students in the right direction, let alone inspire them.
"All the research into degree apprenticeships I have done myself. I've been searching online for apprenticeships via UCAS, the government schemes and websites like whitehat.org.uk. A treasury one pinged up. A 4-year course. He is definitely interested – he proactively emailed them. If a child hasn't got a mum or dad to help them, I don't know what they would do."
The employer view
It is common for the recruitment process for a graduate apprentice to be very different from the standard university application or applying for a regular job.
For instance, a media company offers a three-year Business Management Apprenticeship Degree. Their selection criteria is not based on academic grades, but on personal attributes. Rather than uploading a CV, applicants upload a video of themselves answering a series of questions. This is followed by interviews and assessments. Successful applicants need to be confident, able to function well in a professional environment, and be able to multi-task.
"Essentially we need them to dive into a professional environment and not be intimidated by it. We have interviewed some candidates that have been academically brilliant, but we need someone who is competent out of school as well. They need to demonstrate an understanding of our organisation."
At other organisations, the process is less formal. A construction company running a similar programme made decisions based on a CV and a single interview.
Both employers have their students in the workplace four days a week and attending university one day a week. While at work, students don’t take on a normal headcount role and may work with different departments and managers. This requires employers to take a different approach to management.
At the media company, students are assigned special projects that enable them to tick off their learning objectives. While this is positive for the students’ development, it also adds to the workload of their managers. At the construction company, line managers had no sight of the course outline. This means that the onus is on the graduate apprentice to effectively manage their own development and ensure that they are getting the support they need. This is a big ask for an 18-year-old. Both employers spoke of the communication gap between managers and course providers
However, both companies are looking to continue their schemes. They have proved highly successful at recruiting – and retaining – new talent:
"We employ most of them because they are brilliant bright young people. We select those with the most promise and then we get to keep them."
Apprentice degrees have the potential to combine the benefits of traditional apprenticeships and higher education, delivering value for both students and employers. However, whilst confident, resilient young people may be able to operate without the structure that a regular degree might provide, there is the risk that students will end up isolated and unsupported.
Graduate apprenticeships offer course providers the opportunity to build strong, ongoing relationships with industry. However, they bring unique challenges. Specific strategies and infrastructure are necessary to enable students to get the best from this mixed model of learning. The approach could be varied. For instance, build processes to ensure good communication between the course and the employer throughout the course. Use inductions and social learning to build relationships between students. And provide easily accessible digital resources – these students may visit your campus, but they will be learning wherever they are.
By supporting students better, institutions can ensure that their students not only achieve academic success, but also add more value to their employers.