Driving social mobility? Competitive collaboration in degree apprenticeship development

Guest blog by Claire Newhouse, Head of Apprenticeships and Skills, Leeds Trinity University

Degree apprenticeships present an opportunity for universities to contribute directly towards improving productivity by increasing the number of people in local and regional economies with higher-level skills.  They offer a new income stream for universities, but they also provide a means for diversifying HE entrants.  The dual role for apprenticeships, as a mechanism for boosting productivity and enhancing social mobility, is not without tension, although it can, at times, be taken for granted by government. 

National policy is challenging the traditional university recruitment model. Increasingly, employers are ‘buyers’ of HE, which means that some approaches to diversifying entry into HE are beyond the immediate direct control of university widening participation departments.  It makes sense, on all levels, that employers should be in charge of who they recruit, and we must remember that apprenticeships are a job first and foremost. However, there are ways in which stronger partnership working between employers and HEIs, and across HEIs, can ensure both better access to degree apprenticeship opportunities and support greater social equality.

Last year, Leeds Trinity University led a project amongst HE providers in Go Higher West Yorkshire. Whilst our targets were ambitious in terms of degree apprenticeship ‘starts’, some of the other outcomes around employer awareness, a broadening of outreach activities and institutional behaviour, were more difficult to measure. Whilst building on an existing partnership provided the key infrastructure for the project, more importantly it created the space for partners to work together collaboratively, in an environment that is becoming increasingly competitive. Learning from the project reveals the different conditions for cross-university collaboration, and in the context of degree apprenticeships how this can shape the offer to business and more importantly, how businesses interpret and understand this.  A simple solution, such as a joint website, alongside a more sophisticated approach to working within sectors whereby institutional offers can be better differentiated, has paved the way for continued collaboration in West Yorkshire.

Whilst it might appear that businesses are able to cut out the ‘intermediary’ and grow their own talent through apprenticeships, the role of universities remains crucial in encouraging industry awareness, supporting business processes, including recruitment strategies, and innovating the curriculum.  Universities are dealing with new systems, new funding regimes and changes to delivery models, which radically change traditional pedagogies. At the same time, those employers that universities are trying to engage with, many of which are paying into the apprenticeship levy, need access to clear advice as they try to navigate a new training (and funding) system.  For the individual, opportunities either remain scarce, or difficult to find, and so prospective apprentices need the support of both employers and HE in accessing vacancies.  Ultimately, stronger partnership working across universities and industry will mean that the overall ambitions of the apprenticeship agenda can be better-realised.

Jessica Bradley, Claire Newhouse, Nadira Mirza, (2019) “Driving social mobility? Competitive collaboration in degree apprenticeship development”, Higher Education, Skills and Work-Based Learning, https://doi.org/10.1108/HESWBL-07-2018-0077

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