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Blog – Where now for degree apprenticeships in Wales?

For National Apprenticeships Week, Kieron Rees – Universities Wales’ Policy Adviser, contributed this blog to the IWA’s Click on Wales.

People often talk about the distinction between academic and vocational education, with academic study being seen as more theoretical and associated with universities, and vocational study being more occupation-focused and associated with work-based learning or further education providers. But this divide fails to accurately reflect the breadth of post-16 provision in Wales. Universities have long delivered a range of vocational and professional provision including medicine, engineering, law and teacher training.

This perceived divide is being further challenged by the development of new work-based routes to a degree. This academic year the first apprentices in Wales started the new degree apprenticeship programme in digital. This new digital apprenticeship has three pathways – software engineering, cyber security, and data science – and is the first of new degree apprenticeships developed in Wales and delivered by universities. This degree apprenticeship will offer apprentices the opportunity to attain a BSc in computing or equivalent, over the course of 3-4 years from one of a number of Welsh universities while working full-time. For most degree apprentices, they will spend 80% of their time on the job and 20% of their time studying.

The implementation of this new degree apprenticeship is a great step for Wales, and from 2019/20 universities in Wales will also be able to offer degree apprenticeships in engineering and advanced manufacturing. Offering a work-based route to a degree is going to become ever more important as the population of Wales continues to, on the whole, get older and the skills’ needs of the workplace in Wales continue to change in the light of technological advancement.

But even as we begin implementing this degree apprenticeship, we must be conscious of both the demand for a wider range of subjects, the need for Wales to be able to offer degree apprenticeships and the activity that is taking place across the rest of the UK.

Both Scotland and England have implemented their own approaches to degree apprenticeships in the past four years. In England there are currently over 70 degree apprenticeship standards approved for delivery, including those at level 6 (bachelor’s level) and level 7 (master’s level), with a further 60 standards in development. These apprenticeships are in areas such as computing, engineering, management, policing, architecture, accountancy and nursing. So far in 2018/19 there have been 6,299 degree apprenticeship starts in England with 20% of these at level 7, and a recent Education Select Committee report recommended that the UK Government make the expansion of degree apprenticeships a strategic priority.

In Scotland, graduate apprenticeships have been in place since 2017 and now cover areas including business management, financial services, construction, engineering and IT. It is expected that there will 887 graduate apprenticeship starts in 2018/19.

The approach taken in Wales has been in many ways a positive one. We have potentially avoided some of the challenges that have arisen from some of the more drastic changes to the apprenticeship system in England. And by funding degree apprenticeships through the Higher Education Funding Council for Wales, we can be sure that degree apprenticeships will be subject to the same quality assurance as other higher education provision. For an employer in Wales to offer a degree apprenticeship in digital, they can do so in a straightforward way through a partnership with a university and do not have to go through the process of accessing or transferring levy funds.

But with the pace of delivery quickening elsewhere in the UK, it is important that we acknowledge the demand that universities are receiving from the employers they work with. The breadth of provision being offered elsewhere in the UK, coupled with the ability to deliver degree apprenticeships at level 6 and 7, means that employers who work across the UK are unable to offer their staff in Wales the same opportunities to reskill or up-skill that they can elsewhere.

And, importantly, if we want to offer those in Wales who have already completed a higher level apprenticeship the opportunity to progress onto a degree level apprenticeship, then we will have to look at what higher level apprenticeships are currently being studied in Wales. The most recent figures from Welsh Government show that 87% of higher level apprenticeships are in the areas of healthcare and public services, and management and business. This means that for the majority of higher level apprentices there’s no clear work-based progression route onto a degree level apprenticeship.

With any form of new provision there are benefits to taking a considered approach and ensuring that the delivery of that provision is thought through in a way that works for Government, providers and, most importantly, learners. But there is a significant appetite for degree apprenticeships being demonstrated across the UK, by both individuals and employers. This demand coupled with the quality of the provision already being offered by universities in response to the Welsh Government’s initial priority areas, means now is the time to consider what societal and economic benefits could be brought by degree apprenticeships in other sector areas and at level 7. Doing so would enable people throughout their lives, from all backgrounds, to be able to access the kinds of higher level skills which will become increasingly important in the coming decades.