Steve Hill, External Engagement Director at The Open University

Recent changes to the apprenticeship landscape offer some fresh and exciting alternatives to traditional education pathways. Now, there is another opportunity to progress through further education into higher education, with the development of a new form of higher apprenticeship, the degree apprenticeship.

Higher and degree apprenticeships give individuals a clear pathway to the highest skills levels, with qualifications starting at skill level 4 and available all the way up to level 7. By attaining different skills levels through apprenticeship qualifications, individuals can now benefit from this way of gaining degree recognition for their achievements.

The government has brought together a range of leading employers in trailblazer groups to develop new standards for degree apprenticeships.  These trailblazer groups are driving quality, creating industry relevant qualifications. This ensures that degree apprenticeship qualifications will offer true value for individuals, giving them the workplace-relevant skills they need for employment. 

Moving from further to higher education through apprenticeship programmes, learners remain in work despite the increasing academic rigour of their training. For many individuals, this ability to earn whilst they learn opens up the possibility of gaining a degree level qualification for the first time.

It is the dual focus of the degree apprenticeship – on both practical and academic learning – which makes it truly distinctive. Those who are not interested in the traditional university model, who are more interested in gaining workplace experience, will still benefit from an education underpinned by academic excellence, and a qualification recognised for its quality.

Course content in a true apprenticeship programme is contextualised to the working environment. Learning from practicing experts, and instantly applying new skills to the workplace, apprentices gain deep experience.

The value of these practical skills, when combined with degree-level academic knowledge, offers an entirely new proposition for individuals, educators and businesses alike. The contextualised course content in a properly designed degree apprenticeship gives learners as well as employers the confidence that the skills they spend time acquiring will be relevant and useful in the workplace.

Indeed, increasing take up of these apprenticeships is key to the UK’s wider economy. The progression from higher to degree apprenticeships offers a new way to boost the nation’s higher level skills to meet employer demand. Whilst opening up a new route into higher level education, higher and degree apprenticeships provide individuals with employability skills which empower them in the workplace.

Apprenticeships have a large role to play not only in the economic health of the country, but also in progression towards greater social mobility. As the apprenticeship route through further and higher education becomes more widely recognised, the positive impact on social mobility will also become clearer.

Figures already indicate that those who complete an apprenticeship at skill level 4 or above earn £150,000 more, on average, over their lifetime.  Those who complete higher apprenticeships at level 5 can hope to achieve the same lifetime earnings as a university graduate. The opportunity now, to progress from a higher apprenticeship at level 4 or 5, all the way through to degree apprenticeships at levels 6 and 7, offers another opening to those who enrol on apprenticeship programmes. 

When course content for a degree apprenticeship is delivered flexibly – for instance through online course modules which can be accessed from anywhere and at any time – the opportunity to gain degree equivalent skills becomes much more widely available. For instance, flexible learning methods such as online resources, e-books, apps and mobile-friendly textbooks allow individuals to fit study around their working lives.

In April next year, the government will be introducing an Apprenticeship levy. Behind the introduction of the levy lies the government’s belief that apprenticeships offer a solution to the skills gaps that are holding the UK back, and a new way for individuals to access higher level skills.

The degree apprenticeship, and new standards which are being introduced with the levy in 2017, represents an exciting new way for individuals to follow a pathway to higher education. The degree apprenticeship in its current form represents the culmination of about a decade of development in the UK’s apprenticeship frameworks. Businesses, education providers and individuals alike can celebrate the new opportunities which higher and degree apprenticeships now bring.

Steve Hill, External Engagement Director at The Open University

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