UCEM Vice Chancellor proposes key changes to sustain degree apprenticeships

Posted on: 29 April, 2024

UCEM Vice Chancellor Ashley Wheaton recently addressed, and was then a panellist, at a leading higher education forum about the increasing uptake of degree apprenticeships.

Speaking to the Westminster Higher Education Forum at their virtual ‘Next Steps for Degree Apprenticeships’ conference, Ashley began by briefly outlining UCEM’s support for degree apprenticeships, which offer a balance of academic and vocational learning without incurring a large amount of student debt.

These real benefits have led to a transformative growth in their uptake, especially considering degree apprenticeships were only introduced less than a decade ago. Approximately 60% (about 2,500) of UCEM’s students now study via an apprenticeship route, via more than 500 employers, ranging from smaller businesses to multi-national companies.

Ashley went on to describe how the involvement of employers was crucial, both in the outcome of individual degree apprenticeships and the functioning of apprenticeships more widely.

He encouraged those in the audience to be cognisant that much of the funding for apprenticeships originates from employers via the Apprenticeship Levy, with Ashley also noting that organisations in the construction industry are, in addition, also required to pay towards the activities of the Construction Industry Training Board.

The financial constraints limiting degree apprenticeship growth

Unfortunately, the operation of the apprenticeship funding system remains one of the issues that are limiting further growth in the provision of degree apprenticeships.

Factors like the funding made available towards degree apprenticeships being less than that dedicated to traditional degrees, monies being paid to universities in arrears (rather than upfront, as in the tuition fee model) and the costs of preparing degree apprentices for final assessment all combine to make degree apprentices increasingly economically unviable for higher education providers.

Similarly, student funding forces prospective learners into an overly restrictive, binary choice between a degree apprenticeship or the more traditional undergraduate route, with employers of apprentices having little to no influence, which seems unfair as it is often their levy payment ultimately funding an apprentice’s education.

Proposed reforms to strengthen degree apprenticeships

Ashley then suggested potential solutions to the issues he identified:

  • Allowing ‘mix and match’ and funding of a degree apprentice’s course (e.g. by combining monies from the apprentice, their employer and the Student Loans Company)
  • Demarcating funding for the specific components of degree apprenticeship provision (e.g. teaching, support and end-point assessment costs)
  • Liberalising how employer’s apprenticeships levy funds can be spent (e.g. on approved shorter form courses, or qualifications accredited by professional bodies or regulators)
  • Permitting more flexibility in how quickly degree apprentices must complete their qualification (e.g. by encouraging a more ‘hop on/hop off’ model)
  • Welcoming more staggered and flexible pathways through higher-level apprenticeships (e.g. by not insisting that people enrol at undergraduate level learning at the outset, which can be daunting, especially for those looking to reskill etc)

Ashley commented, “Degree apprenticeships facilitate UCEM’s core purpose of providing an accessible built environment education that fits the lives and career needs of our students and we are expanding our offer.

“Our apprenticeship provision has also been greatly strengthened by our very close relationships with industry and our wonderful UCEM team members who specialise in supporting apprentices and liaising with their employers to ensure all parties are benefiting.

“However, as I explained during this conference, some areas around funding and flexibility need reforming if the degree apprenticeship system is to continue to flourish.

If this does not happen, it could make degree apprenticeships increasingly unviable for higher education institutions. This would be very unfortunate as these courses can cost-effectively address the undersupply of technical and professional skills in the built environment sector and beyond.”