Will degree apprenticeships continue in the UK, despite controversial headlines?

The UK government is set to review funding for high level degree apprenticeships in the country.

By U2B Staff 

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Universities UK (UUK)’s report on degree apprenticeships in the UK defines degree apprenticeships as a programme that combines university study and workplace learning to enable apprentices to gain a full bachelor’s or master’s degree.

Both higher and degree apprenticeships must last a minimum of one year, with degree apprenticeships, in particular, lasting longer, typically up to four years but sometimes five, though there is no fixed maximum duration for a degree apprenticeship.

A degree apprenticeship is different from a regular internship whereby the student has a full-time employment status and are exempt from paying for training costs or student fees and are not eligible for student loans.

During the programmes, degree apprenticeship students split their time between university study and the workplace and are employed throughout. The cost of course fees for the degree apprenticeship is shared between government and employers, meaning that the apprentice can earn a full degree without paying any fees.

Degree apprenticeships are relatively new but are already highly embraced by employers in various industries. Various new programmes are announced regularly to meet evolving industry needs including data science and cybersecurity.


Degree apprenticeships finds itself the subject of controversial headlines

Apprenticeship based degrees were becoming increasingly popular and the list of universities in the UK offering this option grows. There are now over 100 universities in England on the register of apprenticeships training providers, and the number of degree apprenticeship programmes has increased, from 1,614 to 7,114 in the first quarter of 2019.

But recent headlines are set to see the numbers dip, as Emma Hardy Labour’s shadow minister for further education said that degree apprenticeship should only be fully-funded for people aged under 25, those without a first degree and in sectors with skill shortages.

Speaking on day one of FE Week’s sixth Annual Apprenticeships Conference, Hardy said that she supports their expansion at higher education providers across the country, but a decline in opportunities for the “most disadvantaged” needs to be addressed.

“The government’s rushed implementation of the apprenticeship levy has resulted not in an increase in apprenticeship opportunities for the most disadvantaged, but quite the opposite,” she told delegates.

“I believe degree apprenticeships should continue to be fully funded from the levy for people 25 and under, occupations on the shortage occupation list, and adults who do not already have an equivalent qualification.”

Hardy’s proposal comes after warnings from the Institute of Apprenticeships and Technical Education and the National Audit Office that the apprenticeship budget is at risk of being overspent as the budget for England is set to be overspent by £0.5 billion this year, rising to £1.5 billion during 2021/22, according to the government agency for apprenticeships.

Among the concerns raised where claims by Ofsted chief inspector Amanda Spielman that companies have been rebadging existing training schemes as higher apprenticeships.

Hardy also brought up the latest report on the apprenticeship system by former Department for Education adviser Tom Richmond, where he said 23 higher education institutions have developed an apprenticeship which requires a PhD, or another level eight qualification, to start.

Hardy said: “Surely this should not be considered an apprenticeship,” and in her opinion, “the government should end the 100% use of the apprenticeship levy for courses equivalent to a master’s degree.”

This comes following education secretary, Gavin Williamson’s ordered review of the level seven senior leader MBA apprenticeship standard.

In a letter to DfE’s Director of Professional & Technical Education for  Institute for Apprenticeships, Jennifer Coupland, Willaimson states, “I am unconvinced that having an apprenticeship standard that includes an MBA paid for by the levy is in the spirit of our reformed apprenticeships or provides value for money. I question whether an MBA is an essential regulatory or professional requirement to work in this field of senior leadership. It is of the utmost importance for the integrity of the programme and the apprenticeships brand that each and every standard meets our highest possible expectations.”

With costs burdening the UK government, will the degree apprenticeships progamme in the UK come to an end?

Graduating students attend New York University’s commencement ceremony at Yankee Stadium. Source: Drew Angerer/Getty Images/AFP

Businesses in the UK have much to gain from degree apprenticeships

The UK government has been an active proponent for degree apprenticeships in the past and has been the backbone in driving university and business partnerships in this area and this has led to a major drive to make businesses and organisations in the UK aware of the benefits of apprenticeships for employers.

According to Skills Training UK, many different work sectors are still discovering the benefits of apprenticeships. Some of the specialties that the benefit most include retail, customer service, business improvement techniques, team leading, management, and manufacturing operations.

Businesses so far report many advantages of apprenticeships especially as it can boost productivity and competitiveness. Evidence suggests that employing and training apprentices can improve the productivity of companies, with recent research demonstrating both short and long-term gains.


A study conducted by the Centre for Economics and Business Research (CEBR) found that businesses could gain an additional £18bn in revenue from apprenticeships. The study also found that an apprentice brings a gain in productivity of more than £10,000 per year for their employer, with figures for some sectors being even higher.

Businesses also gain from apprenticeships through improved competitiveness. Studies on industries found that 77% of employers agree that apprentices in their organisation improved competitiveness. Studies also indicate that 80% of customers report better service from companies that hire apprentices.

Businesses have also reported that employing apprentices improve staff retention. Many businesses in the UK suffer from a lack of skilled personnel and struggle to find hires with the right skill sets and thus these degree apprenticeship programmes are highly beneficial to businesses that are on the lookout for these specific skillsets.

Businesses also tend to gain through co-developing the curriculum for these programmes, in addition to the knowledge exchange that takes place.


What have universities gained from degree apprenticeships?

The mechanics of degree apprenticeships launches partnership openings for the university as it opens co-development and knowledge exchange opportunities.

Knowledge exchange occurs as businesses and universities work together to co-develop programmes that lead to a degree but are tailored to meet the specific academic and vocational needs of that employer, industry or sector.

Universities also offer degree apprenticeship programmes by working with niche industries or smaller companies to set up a programme that would meet the needs required by this group.

A report published by Universities UK titled The Future of Degree Apprenticeships found that 61% of university respondents either ‘strongly agreed’ or ‘agreed’ that degree apprenticeships have enabled them to strengthen their relationships with other universities.

The study was conducted on 23 university respondents that also emphasised the benefits of more strategic partnerships were developed with other universities. These partnerships were developed by working around invitations to tender, in instances for example where individual universities are not able to meet the geographical reach required by employers.


Are businesses truly benefiting from degree apprenticeships?

The Future of Degree Apprenticeships report published by Universities UK found that 83% of employers either ‘strongly agreed’ or ‘agreed’ with the statement that degree apprenticeships provide a higher quality of apprenticeships.

The report also found that 89% of employers agreed that degree apprenticeships helped businesses to attract employees of high calibre. This is a priority for businesses as they seek to attract and develop a talented, competitive and productive workforce that can support the business through challenges.

A report by the Institute for Workplace Skills and Innovation (IWSI) emphasises a renewed need for organisations to upskill and reskill employees through apprenticeships. The report suggests that employers need to prepare their workforce so that businesses can reclaim their edge as soon as the threat of the pandemic is over.

CEO of IWSI Nicholas Wyman stressed the importance of upskilling now, as the pandemic is disrupting operations everywhere.

86% of businesses reported that degree apprenticeships are helping to drive higher levels of employee retention and engagement and boosting productivity levels by enabling them to upskill their existing workforce.


“It’s very important for employers to take a long-range view of workforce development,” Wyman said. “Many employers want to maintain their workforces, however, they are facing the reality of slowing or in some cases of forced closures with little or no revenue to pay their workers. This may see many companies forced to downsize. This could be a costly mistake.”

89% of businesses agreed that degree apprentices develop a workforce that is future-ready, with transferable knowledge and ‘soft skills’ vital for success in a rapidly transforming economy.

Most businesses also find that degree apprenticeships develop important job and sector-specific skills through their apprenticeship. Many businesses expressed the belief that a degree would equip apprentices with the necessary to remain agile, adaptable and competitive in a changing world of work.

What does the future hold?

With funding cuts looming on the horizon, the Institute for Apprenticeships and Technical Education announced this week that the government consultations on apprenticeship funding and external quality assurance have both been extended by six weeks. This decision comes due to disruption brought about by the Covid-19 virus.

However, there is an exception for integrated degree apprenticeships, which would be overseen by higher education regulator the Office for Students.