The State of Play with Apprenticeships - a 2022 Update

 

Professor Darryll Bravenboer, Middlesex University, December 2021

It’s an interesting time for higher education and apprenticeships with key policy changes that could significantly change the landscape and maybe even for the better. There are now 98,000 higher apprenticeships (level 4+) starts which is nearly a third of all starts and 39,200 of these are at level 6 and above. The challenges of Brexit and Covid have significantly dented university finances at a time when the sector awaits confirmation of how higher education will be funded following the recommendations from the Augar report. At the same time the Minister of State for HE and FE has “asked OfS to strongly encourage providers to set themselves ambitious, measurable targets to significantly increase the proportion of students on higher and degree apprenticeships”.  As universities seek to diversify their income at a time of funding uncertainty, higher and degree apprenticeships increasingly represent core business for the sector. 

 

Many of us that have developed work-based and work-integrated provision for the benefit of learners and employers over the years can celebrate this move from the periphery to the centre stage as finance directors seek to drive specific income targets for apprenticeships and to differing extents, recognise the need to resource developments. Yet before we celebrate too much, the sector has needed to collectively brace itself for the challenge of preparing for Ofsted Inspection now that all level 6 and 7 apprenticeships are firmly in scope.  Cue fevered discussions with university quality departments debating “if Ofsted really is within their remit”, it’s enough to make you choke on your mince pie!

 

Yet in unexpected places good sense has emerged. The IfATE consultation in the summer on proposals to introduce a new model of degree apprenticeships, sought to: remove the unspoken barriers for developing degree apprenticeships where there is employer need; finally recognise that high quality requires the integration of on and off-the-job learning; fully aligns degree learning outcomes and apprenticeship knowledge, skills and behaviours; reinstates the integrated model as standard to remove the unhelpful distinction between degree and apprenticeship assessment; and makes clear (as is clear to all) that apprenticeship assessment requires occupational and industry expertise. Happily, the proposals have received overwhelming support from employers and providers alike, although there is many a slip between lip and cup as we await Ministerial approval to implement the new model next year.

 

Finally, credit where credit is due, the Skills for Jobs White Paper that started off the year by signposting the Lifelong Loan Entitlement (LLE), could bring about the most significant change in higher education funding since the introduction of tuition fees. If funded credit is used as a common currency to facilitate flexible access and portability of HE provision across and between providers of many types, then the institutional autonomy monopoly may be nearing its close. Afterall, if the over 100 HE providers who are on the Register of Apprenticeship Training Providers have waived their institutional autonomy to agree to assess the prior learning of all apprentices, then why not do it for all learners? The 2021 versions of the QAA HE Credit Framework for England and the SEEC Credit Level Descriptors helpfully identified examples of how credit can be used and explicitly align our understanding of learning across traditional HE, apprenticeships and microcredentials, so the broad architecture is largely in place. While there is much to agree before the 2025 implementation date for the LLE, if higher education funding is to be based on credit, it opens the door to the kind of innovative provision that future learners will need and I have to say, is much more fun to develop.