The University recently welcomed its two thousand five hundredth degree apprentice. This makes the University one of the largest providers of degree apprenticeships in the country: the apprentices now study across twelve of the university’s academic departments, across thirty-five apprenticeship standards and are employed by almost six hundred employers. Apprentices are full-time employees in work, pursuing a course of study involving on-the-job and off-the job learning, with the relationship between the two managed through the structure of the programme and a range of work-based learning coaches. The range of employers we work with extends from very large multi-national companies such as Nestlé and Amey, to national companies such as Clipper Logistics, Barratts Homes and Kier, public sector employers such as the NHS and South Yorkshire Pole as well as dozens of small city-region-based companies.
There are any number of reasons why the University’s large-scale commitment to degree apprenticeships matters to us. Our strategy commits us to working collaboratively as a university of place to transform lives – both the lives of those who study with us and the lives of people across and beyond the Sheffield city region. Almost half (45%) of our apprentices are from the most disadvantaged neighbourhoods, well above the national average for degree apprenticeships, which stands at 34%. Many apprentices are the first in their family to go to university and would not have accessed higher education without the opportunities afforded by this programme. In addition, 10.9% of Hallam’s apprentices identify as having a disability, compared to the national average of 4.6%. Our programmes support all ages into employment, as well as helping those hitherto locked in low-skilled employment to progress their career, with a particular focus on boosting the local economy. Nearly 70% of apprentices are mature learners, and 41% are from the Sheffield City Region.
Beyond this, there are other important dimensions of degree apprenticeships. Talking to apprentices and employers several things have struck me. The first is the extent to which the apprentices themselves are confident about their learning, making direct connections between their day-to-day practices and work and the wider context of their job. The second is the extent to which building degree-apprenticeship programmes has involved a real dialogue between employers and colleagues across the university. This is not just about mapping the learning programme to the demands of the apprenticeship standards. It’s also clear that in many, if not all cases, it has involved employers looking hard at job design, to think about ways in which jobs can be reconfigured to provide the range of learning and experience opportunities which are required both to meet the standards and to support the learning the programme participants. I listened in to a conversation last week between the Minister for Skills and Higher Education and employers and apprentices on the minister’s visit to Sheffield Hallam. This sense of the importance of job design and the way that engaging with apprenticeship provision had shifted employer thinking about how to design jobs was a strong theme, and it’s not one I have seen properly discussed in coverage of degree apprenticeships. Too often the assumption is that delivering degree apprenticeships is about providing structured off-the-job training for employees, but it is far more than this. Success involves a genuine three-way partnership between university, employers and apprentices, and the outcomes change all three: universities think differently about the development of programmes, employers think differently about job design and apprentices become confident self-managers of their learning. For decades, the challenge of building successful work-based learning has been cracking these relationships.
There is much more to do. It remains the case that engaging small and medium-sized companies in degree apprenticeships is more challenging than engaging larger employers; the latter have more resources to think about training and employee development. The regulation of degree apprenticeships, which involves complex relationships with the Education and Skills Funding Agency and Ofsted, who inspect apprenticeship provision on a model ultimately derived from the inspection of schools, is complex. Funding of degree apprenticeships, and the working of the apprenticeship levy which underpins the funding remains complex and restrictive. And degree apprenticeships will not solve all of the country’s deep-seated problems on skills, which manifest themselves quite differently at different levels of educational attainment and in different sectors of the economy. One of the outcomes of the ministerial visit to Hallam last week was a further opening of policy dialogue with civil servants on these issues, based on the successes we have had here.
For all this, Hallam and its partner employers have made enormous progress and the provision is now impressive in its breadth and scale. What’s at stake here is more than securing another route to higher education, important though that is: it’s also about playing an instrumental role in designing the future of work.