Today’s young people have a world of opportunities before them, which is great, but also daunting.  With so many options, it can be difficult to make sense of them and choose the most fitting, so we asked Dr Brooke Storer-Church, Senior Policy Advisor, Subjects and Skills at HEFCE (the Higher Education Funding Council For England) for advice.

Those of us in higher education have long been focused on selling the benefits of a degree to one’s personal and professional development.  Earning a university degree can arm an individual with the intellectual capabilities to develop a lifelong, fulfilling career journey, but a traditional, campus-based, full-time higher education isn’t right for everyone.

Universities around the world, and specifically in the UK, are already adept at welcoming a range of different types of students and are now expanding their efforts to widen that access further by developing new degree apprenticeships.  While some school leavers are keen to jump into full-time work straight away, others want to continue their education.  Degree apprenticeships (DAs) combine the best of both worlds by providing individuals with an opportunity to ‘earn and learn’—to get a job and also earn a degree alongside it.

Degree Apprenticeships as a new option

So where did degree apprenticeships come from? To give some background explanation, it’s helpful to look back at recent government policy and the ways in which the government has attempted to increase economic growth in the UK.

One way to increase economic growth is to address what has been referred to as ‘the productivity gap’.  This describes the difference between the economic outputs of the UK as compared to several similar countries.  The graph below shows the differences, with the UK in red (Graph source: ONS, International Comparisons of Productivity, 2014).

The Government’s 2015 Productivity Plan indicated that employers could be more productive by accessing a better-trained workforce.  This is because many employers claim that they cannot find people with the skills they need, and that this is getting worse rather than better.

 What and where are the skills needed?

By 2022, it is predicted that there will be 2 million more jobs that require higher level skills.  We know that the labour market is changing, with advancing technology and increased automation encouraging a demand for higher level skills over traditional, manual skills.  To be clear, there is still demand manual labour skills, but that demand has stagnated and remains in a steady state.

Where we see growth is in the demand for higher level skills like engineering, nursing and social care, construction, leadership and management (across various sectors), and digital (across various sectors).

So what does that mean for my child?

To be clear, I am not advocating that all school leavers only pursue study or work in those areas of higher demand.  I believe we will continue to need young people to follow their dreams and pursue their passions, whether they be engineering, art, dance, travel, politics, or history.  For our society to flourish, we need librarians, art historians, bus drivers, nurses, politicians, teachers, volunteers, cashiers and many, many more.

To help our children, we need to first get to know them and understand what excites and engages them.  Then (if we can figure that out!), we need to know how they can best pursue what that is.  But we also need to ensure they understand what pressures lie ahead in any avenue they choose.  Some they will discover on their own, but others we know already.

For example, we know that, in order to gain a degree in England, a student must assume considerable student debt now that tuition fees are around £9,000 per year.  And we know that for some professions, the best (or only) way to pursue them is to gain a degree.

The benefits of degree apprenticeships

As mentioned earlier, degree apprenticeships provide an opportunity to ‘earn and learn’.  They are jobs during which an individual also earns a degree.  Degree apprentices work a minimum of 30 hours a week and study alongside that work commitment.  Degree apprenticeships usually take between 3-5 years to complete.

There are clear benefits from undertaking a degree apprenticeship:

  • Apprentices earn a salary throughout the apprenticeship
  • Apprentices earn a full degree without paying student fees (employers cover the cost of the degree)
  • Apprenticeships allow for on-the-job, applied learning and help cultivate skills attractive to a range of employers
  • Apprentices will gain valuable work experience while studying for their degrees so that they gain a head start in their chosen profession when compared to their peers
  • Educational costs are co-funded by the government and the employer (so no student debt associated with tuition fees)

But a degree apprenticeship may not be appropriate for everyone, so it’s important to encourage your son or daughter to think carefully if this is the right option for them.  The list of questions below is intended to help with that consideration.

Things to explore with your child:

  1. How does he or she learn best (in reading, by doing, etc.)?
  2. Is she interested and prepared for full-time work?
  3. Would he prefer a traditional campus-based, full-time HE experience (with time to develop holistically)?
  4. Is he capable of balancing study against work commitments?
  5. Is she concerned about student debt?
  6. Are there DAs available for jobs he’d be interested in doing?
  7. Would it require moving out of the local area? Is that manageable or attractive?

For a young person who is keen to get a job and start earning money, yet also interested in learning and potentially gaining a degree to ensure she has the skills necessary to advance in her career, a degree apprenticeship presents a viable option for propelling that journey.  But it requires determination, focus and an ability to balance both learning and working—not an easy thing to do!

There are plenty of examples of young people who have managed to do just that, and very successfully.  Aston University, the first UK higher education institution to offer degree apprenticeships, has just recently announced the graduation of its first-degree apprentice cohort.  After four and half years of employment and study, the first 11 apprentices have all achieved a BSc (Honours) degrees.  Click here to learn more and to read the apprentices’ own words about why they chose to undertake a degree apprenticeship and the benefits they’ve found in so doing.

More information, please!

If degree apprenticeships do seem like an attractive option, then you’ll probably wonder how to find out more information, particularly: how do we find specific degree apprenticeships?

It’s important to remember that degree apprenticeships are, by definition, a job with study attached to it.  Therefore, anyone interested in a degree apprenticeship needs to search for opportunities within job boards and other vacancies lists.  Some apprentices have found opportunities by searching vacancies at specific employers they are interested in, while others have used the government’s Find an Apprentice website, where you can search for apprenticeship vacancies by level, region and keywords.

UCAS has recently added higher and degree apprenticeship vacancies to its career finder tool.  There are opportunities advertised by a small group of employers who are keen to recruit early, giving potential apprentices plenty of time to consider their options.

It’s important to remember that degree apprenticeships are still fairly new and require employers to develop and agree on the underlying content of any degree apprenticeship before it can be offered.  These employer groups are called Trailblazers. Once the Trailblazer group agrees that underlying content, it is drafted into what is called a Standard.  The Standard is then approved by Government and published as ‘approved for delivery’.  This process can take some time, so at the moment, there are 22 approved degree apprenticeship Standards, for which degree apprenticeship vacancies can be advertised by employers.  There are more than 200 further Standards currently going through the approvals process, so do bear that in mind if you can’t find one that interests your child.  UCAS has pulled together a list of currently available Standards, with links to descriptions of what the apprenticeship involves, what the occupation entails, and what the associated learning expectations are.  You can find a list of those here, under the ‘What’s Available’ section.

You can also read about HEFCE’s work in this area here.

The thing to remember is degree apprenticeships are quite a new option, and not everyone you speak to when seeking advice may be aware of them.  So it’s important to do your own research and, most importantly, listen to your child’s preferences as you work together to help carve out the path ahead.  It’s an exciting journey!  And will be all the more stable for your loving help and support, no matter what choice your child makes.

© Dr Brooke Storer-Church, HEFCE and Careers Advice for Parents 2017. All rights reserved.