“No-one’s talking about degree apprenticeships”

So said a member of audience on a recent edition of Question time. And he was right. The panel, including Angela Rayner, Labour’s shadow education minister, made no mention of apprenticeships in any way in their answers to a question, nicely worded, on the value of a degree costing circa £50 K. It took the valiant Michelle Dewsbury (ex The Apprentice winner) to mention apprenticeships at all. Her answer, questioning the value and relevance of many degrees (she runs a recruitment firm) and instead praising the apprenticeship route, received a universal thunderous round of applause, noted by David Dimbleby as a first for a QT audience. 

It is also worth noting that the recent release of the National Audit office report into the Higher Education Market serves to reinforce the questionable value of many university degrees but also more pertinently fails to mention Degree Apprenticeships at all. This omission which may be due to no available data but may also illustrate a theme that these programmes are not part of the national thinking on Higher Education.

It's time we all got on board with this and reviewed the messages we give out through careers, in the classroom and in our wider educational environment.

Most of the time it's progression to University that is our headline assumption and the first base position irrespective of the student. This was also the main focus for the recent "State of the Nation" report on the disparity between parts of the country in terms of attainment and progression which is increasing the lack of social mobility.

Here at Westminster Kingsway College inspired by our first success in placing a student on the Bank of England school leaver programme 2 years ago, decided to take this on and challenge these assumptions. The college created The Degree Apprenticeship programme to mirror the offer we deliver for UCAS and raise awareness and understanding of the value of this alternative.

Colleagues will know though it's not like UCAS. The level of support required for students is much more extensive due to the complexities of the process, described by some as akin to preparing for a military operation, not far off the mark.  This is an issue raised at least two years ago by Lord Adonis, that a UCAS based system is needed to make this process easier and more accessible for all students. We therefore allocated proper resourcing to create our own in house system to get the information to students easily and support them through the process. We have built contacts with the companies offering these opportunities (think Goldman Sachs, Santander, ITV, BBC, PWC, M&G) to help our students understand what’s on offer and provide workshops and coaching on how to approach an application process which is far more complex than any University application (video interviews; on line tests; workshops; panel interviews). We also bring in existing apprentices wherever possible by phone as well as in person.

None of what we have done is rocket science, but what we have achieved is a systemic shift in our thinking on what progression means, from senior careers staff through to tutors who are having the day to day conversations with students that can make that difference operationally.

The result: we now have over 100 students enrolled on the programme from A level and BTEC courses.

Students want to know about these opportunities, that’s clear. And the opportunities are cutting across many curriculum areas of A levels and BTEC: Law, Technology (a massive and expanding area), Finance, Business Management, HR, Marketing, Engineering, are some of our main ones. The entry requirements are typically asking for around 3 C’s but have a greater emphasis on capabilities, attitude and skills which is heaven sent for many of our young people.

The training partners include Universities from the Russell group affirming the quality and status of these programmes. A number of our students wouldn’t have been able to apply for a standard undergraduate course to these Universities with 3 C’s but they can now access them through a degree apprenticeship. This is really going to change the social and economic opportunities for our young people.

Our experience reveals that the big corporates and companies, who are now pitching into degree apprenticeships, see these as ways to address the need for diversifying their workforce and creating a programme that not only delivers the degree but really develops the student into a fantastic employee.

PWC and many others are investing more now into their Degree Apprenticeship offer than their Graduate programmes. And of course for the student by 21 they can really command the market, with a CV that includes a degree, a 3 year paid work experience with a reputable company where from 18 they have been earning a salary of between 17- 21K, and of course no debt.

We know now that University doesn't necessarily lead to a great job or moves you forward socially and economically. Moreover, moving forwards can sometimes mean moving sideways. So if you want to head into marketing, getting a place on the ITV level 3 digital marketing apprenticeship for example might be a far more powerful way to start your career than a marketing degree.

These are the type of conversations we are starting to have with students at the college. None of this conflicts with still advising and supporting students to aspire to University and for some areas University will still be necessary. But it is our moral duty at this critical stage to ensure students are making choices based on a proper understanding of all the options and a more realistic appraisal of their possible career trajectory. 

Wendy Breakell, Consultant Advisor on employability and employer engagement

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