England has a reputation for having great ideas and then failing to implement them effectively - I think we may be failing in this way with Degree Apprenticeships.
For generations England’s had an academic/vocational divide - technical education has been seen as inferior and the oft quoted “good choice for other people’s children”.
Then in March 2015 Number 10 Downing Street did something rather special, it launched Degree Apprenticeships - a degree and apprenticeship in one package. Not a vocational OR an academic programme, but a top quality vocational and academic programme.
Employers loved the idea - with Trailblazers quick to develop Degree Apprenticeships in a range of occupations and professions needed in both the private and public sectors in engineering, digital technology, construction, science, management, nursing and policing to highlight just a few examples.
The development of Degree Apprenticeships has introduced a new highly aspirational choice - loved by parents and young people alike. Ask a Degree Apprentice why they decided to pursue such a programme and the ability to gain a degree will be mentioned as one of the key reasons.
The introduction of Degree Apprenticeships and the power of the degree brand has also helped sell the benefits of the family of Apprenticeships - including Intermediate and Advanced Apprenticeship roles.
Apprenticeships weren’t just the choice for individuals who couldn't go to university, through the inclusion of a degree - they could be a highly aspirational choice.
The internationally accepted quality and value of a UK degree when combined with an Apprenticeship made a very bold statement – gone is the academic/vocational divide and quality is paramount.
As ever in England we seem to be failing on the implementation of a great idea. A key problem is the Institute for Apprenticeships' so called 'Faster and Better' approach to the development of Apprenticeship standards and assessment plans. Unlike employers and individuals who have taken to Degree Apprenticeships with gusto the Institute seems to have a problem with degrees.
Indeed, there seems to be a deliberate policy through 'Faster and Better' to remove degrees from Apprenticeship standards, unless required by a regulator or professional body, in many cases, against the wishes of employers. A key reason for this seems to be the Institute’s desire to establish the Apprenticeship Certificate as a 'qualification' in what are called “degree level” Apprenticeships.
The idea of an Apprenticeship Certificate developing currency as an accepted licence to practise in a specific occupation may be a good one. Acceptance of Apprenticeship Certificates as a licence to practise will however, not happen overnight. It also comes with a series of challenges.
Can the Institute confirm, for example, that an Apprenticeship Certificate will be accepted by employers in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, let alone employers and educational institutions in Germany, France, China or the USA?
A Degree, of course, has international currency.
There's also an issue of the domestic currency of an Apprenticeship Certificate and how it supports individuals move from one occupation to the next. A Degree Apprenticeship supports such transition, but would a so called “degree level” apprenticeship without a degree do likewise? Personally I doubt it.
The term “degree level” is also potentially very misleading for individuals. Which organisation will decide if an Apprenticeship is “degree level”, if an Apprenticeship standard doesn’t specify or include a qualification – or confirm its size, the length of learning programme and national, let alone international equivalence?
The idea that an Apprenticeship Certificate is a qualification is also highly questionable.
Another key issue are the transferable skills developed though a Degree Apprenticeship. An Apprenticeship provides the training for the occupation of today. In addition, a degree in a Degree Apprenticeship helps individuals, through the breadth and depth of their study and the extra curricula activities they undertake, gain the transferable skills for the jobs of tomorrow.
A Degree Apprenticeship should be a winning combination - the skills of today and through the degree the ability and adaptability to gain the skills of tomorrow.
Employers, Trailblazers and individuals get this, but does the Institute for Apprenticeships?
We've got the chance to take a massive step forward to end the academic vocational divide and to provide a great opportunity to offer a new high quality programme to raise productivity and enhance social mobility.
Let's hope the Institute for Apprenticeships seizes this opportunity and reverses its current misguided approach.
Adrian Anderson, Chief Executive, University Vocational Awards Council.