Reflecting on a ministerial ambition to widen participation in HE through technical education and apprenticeships

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UVAC, as the Higher Education (HE) representative body championing vocational learning and with over 80 universities in its membership, welcomes Minister Donelan’s intention to get universities to offer more Degree Apprenticeships and higher technical qualifications and help disadvantaged young people realise their potential. Indeed, in 2020 UVAC produced a very detailed report, (, outlining how Higher and Degree apprenticeship and higher technical education could support social mobility and contribute towards the Government’s levelling up agenda. UVAC has also been saying for some time that there is far too little focus on Higher and Degree Apprenticeship and technical education in the approach the Office for Students (OfS) has adopted, regarding Access and Participation Plans. Higher and degree apprenticeships and higher technical qualifications with their focus on developing the knowledge, skills and behaviours required to be occupationally competent totally meet Minister Donelan’s objective that Higher Education focuses on “getting on rather than just getting in.” – Source: Conservative Home 24 November.
Whilst we welcome the Minister’s announcements, we do, however, have several observations on how plans to grow Higher and Degree Apprenticeships and Higher Technical Qualifications should be implemented:
  1. No one would argue that disadvantaged young people should not be a key focus of either Degree Apprenticeships or Higher Technical Qualifications. Care, however, is needed in messaging. We must not position one type of programme for the disadvantaged and by default another for affluent middle-class students. Traditional full-time Higher Education programmes are for individuals from advantaged and disadvantaged backgrounds. Similarly, Government, the Office for Students (OfS) and Institute for Apprenticeships and Technical Education (IfATE), should make it clear that Degree Apprenticeships and Higher Technical Qualifications are appropriate qualifications for individuals from all backgrounds.
  2. Progression through the ‘academic’ route is usually seen as linear. A young person completes their A levels and then immediately, or following a gap year, may typically enter HE at 18 or 19. Technical Education and Apprenticeships are, however, different. Should an individual learner, completing a Health and Social Care Applied General, or in future a T Level, decide to enter employment as a healthcare assistant this role and choice should be valued and celebrated. Later in their career, a health care assistant may seek to train to become a nursing associate and thereafter progress to a registered nurse. If Apprenticeships are used by individuals over the age of 24 to become nursing associates and registered nurses, then this is a success. Higher and Degree Apprenticeships and Higher Technical Qualifications should be valued as a route through which adults can reach their occupational potential. As Minister Donelan notes “For too long HE has been predominantly undertaken between the ages of 18 – 22 and our system has not supported or developed a culture of lifelong learning.” – Source: The Times Higher Education Live Speech 24 November. As with the new Lifelong Loan Entitlement, the Higher and Degree Apprenticeship system (including funding system) should support lifelong learning and individuals of all ages benefit from Higher Education provision.
  3. Degree Apprenticeship and Higher Technical Education are Productivity and Employer Focused Programmes. Employers use Apprenticeships to recruit new or train existing employees for the occupations their organisations need. In the focus on disadvantaged young people, while a vital consideration, we miss this fundamental point. Take the NHS, the biggest levy payer by far. Surely, the primary purpose of Higher and Degree Apprenticeship for the NHS is to train the nursing associates, registered nurses, health care professionals and other allied health professional roles from all backgrounds needed to deliver world-class healthcare? As such, Degree Apprenticeships are not simply about providing an alternative route to and through HE but is instead focused on supporting employers to recruit and train the individuals from all backgrounds their organisations need to raise performance, productivity and service efficiency. Like Apprenticeships, Higher Technical Qualifications are based on employer developed occupational standards that define the knowledge, skills and behaviours individuals from ALL backgrounds need in order to be occupationally competent.
The Value of Higher Apprenticeships – UVAC is fully supportive of the IfATE’s new approach to the development and approval of Degree Apprenticeship. We also wholeheartedly welcome plans to strengthen the Degree Apprenticeship brand. Like Minister Donelan, UVAC wants more Higher and Degree Apprenticeships, more universities and HEIs in the market to deliver and more individuals to take Higher Technical Qualifications (HTQs). We are delighted that the value of higher-level apprenticeship is now being recognised and celebrated and UVAC wholeheartedly welcome plans to strengthen the Degree Apprenticeship brand. We are not, however, sure how targets will work. An employer not a university decides whether to offer an Apprenticeship. The employer and not the university also decides on who to offer a Degree Apprenticeship to. Targets can also distort behaviour. The absolute number of Degree Apprenticeships delivered is less important than how the range of Degree Apprenticeships delivered contribute to productivity, delivery of public sector services, social mobility, workforce diversity, levelling-up and the net zero agenda. Few would disagree that Degree Apprenticeships are a great concept, that there are excellent examples of Degree Apprenticeships and that more are needed. Targets may have a role in supporting expansion, but they need to be developed and applied with care. UVAC has called for a Degree Apprenticeship growth plan that could incorporate Higher Apprenticeships and Higher Technical Education. This would include reiterating the multiple objectives of Higher and Degree Apprenticeship and Higher Technical Qualifications (productivity, social mobility, levelling-up, provision of public sector services and supporting the net zero agenda) and action needed to remove the remaining barriers to Higher and Degree Apprenticeship growth and could consider targets in the context of economic and societal need and the levelling up agenda. This could complement OfS action to encourage providers to significantly increase the proportion of students recruited onto Higher and Degree Apprenticeship programmes and institutional approaches to setting ambitious targets for Higher and Degree Apprenticeships, Higher Technical Qualifications and part time courses. We will watch with interest how the OfS responds to the joint higher and further education minister’s demand, that universities rewrite their plans around access and participation to reduce drop-out rates, with “tough” goals also in the take-up of higher technical qualifications and part time courses.

Blog by Mandy Crawford-Lee – Chief Executive, UVAC

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