How we are supporting degree apprenticeships and higher technical education (2023)

It’s great to be speaking to you today at the first Universities UK apprenticeships conference.

I’m disappointed to not be able to join the conference today. Degree apprenticeships and higher technical education are my favourite subjects, and the agenda has several topics which are dear to my heart.

I particularly want to talk to you about the role of degree apprenticeships in the ladder of opportunity, which enables people to climb, rung by rung, towards a good job and a great career. Our shared challenge is to grow these brilliant opportunities.

Successes to date

Degree apprenticeships are a real success story. Level 6 and 7 programmes now make up over 12% of apprenticeships overall. In the last academic year, they have risen from just over 39,000 to more than 43,000.

This phenomenal growth is thanks to the hard work of everyone involved – including Universities UK and its members. I want to thank Professor Steve West, Vivienne Stern, and the whole UUK team for everything they’ve done to help drive this expansion, working with you all.

I hope you’ll agree that the Secretary of State and I are some of the most passionate advocates for degree apprenticeships in Parliament. But we need to go further to ensure even more people can benefit from them.

The package of earning while you learn, studying at our world-leading universities, and working for some of Britain’s best employers is a unique selling point. Especially when you consider the earnings potential! Data published last year shows that Level 6 apprentices have median earnings of over £34,500 after they achieve their apprenticeship – with no student finance to repay.

The Ladder of Opportunity

The ‘ladder of opportunity’ I mentioned earlier is something I believe in wholeheartedly. It’s a way of thinking about what we need as a country, to get to where we want to go.

Opportunity and social justice

The ladder has two crucial pillars that hold it up. The first is opportunity and social justice. Degree apprenticeships offer an opportunity for those who might not normally go to university to get started in a profession. This is real social mobility – getting into careers which might otherwise be closed off. We need to reach-out to those with potential, especially from disadvantaged backgrounds, and connect them with employers who value alternatives to traditional graduate recruitment.

A good example is the Medical Doctor apprenticeship standard, which has recently been approved for delivery. This will offer a genuinely new route into a profession currently dominated by traditional degree entrants.

The Department of Health & Social Care recently updated me on this apprenticeship, with new funding for a pilot announced a few weeks ago. It will support healthcare providers to employ these apprentices from underrepresented groups, helping to create more doctors that reflect the population they serve.

Strong HE and FE

The second pillar of the ladder is about strengthening Higher and Further education. Degree apprenticeships have an important role in widening access and participation to university. Many UUK members have built their flexible offers to serve employers’ and apprentices’ diverse needs.

When I made my first speech in this job, I challenged those universities who don’t offer any degree apprenticeships to ask themselves “Why?”

With funding of up to £8 million on offer this year through the Strategic Priorities Grant, there is a great opportunity to forge strong employer partnerships and develop new offers. I know Universities UK are keen to drive forward the expansion of degree apprenticeships – particularly when it comes to engaging with SMEs.

Ladder rungs:

Careers information

The first rung on the ladder of opportunity is careers empowerment. Careers information must include skills-based options, and help young people understand the incredible opportunity of a degree apprenticeship. It should also offer guidance on applying for a route where employers (not universities) are sifting applications.

My department and UCAS are currently exploring how we can offer a more joined-up experience for school leavers who want to access apprenticeships – including at degree-level.

Championing apprenticeships and employers’ skills need

The next rung is about championing apprenticeships and meeting employers’ skills needs. I know there are some amazing apprenticeship champions among UUK members.

But we need to look beyond the industries that have fuelled the growth of degree apprenticeships to date. There are more than 150 standards at degree level, and a handful of them have thousands of starts. There is untapped demand elsewhere. This might be in standards which have been approved relatively recently. Or it might be amongst employers who traditionally recruit graduates – those who could be tempted by the prospect of recruiting talent to shape into their ideal employee while they study.

Quality

Another rung of the ladder is about championing quality, so that technical education and training - including degree apprenticeships - gain parity of esteem with traditional degrees.

It is great the Ofsted inspections of Higher Education Institutions are so positive – 88% are good or outstanding. This confirms my belief that Universities are brilliantly placed to deliver these unique programme; and IfATE’s new policies to drive greater integration of degrees in occupational standards will also support this work.

Even so, there are areas for improvement. I encourage those among the 88% to delve into Ofsted’s reporting, and the reviews of Apprenticeship Service submitted by employers and apprentices. Only through continuous appraisal and improvement - and flagging our success to the wider world - will we build the standing of degree apprenticeships.

Regulatory burden

With this focus on quality comes the question of regulation. Universities UK have raised this issue on your behalf and I want to thank all the UUK members who have also discussed this with us directly at the end of last year.

I hear you loud and clear, and whilst we will never compromise on quality, I am equally clear that want strip out unnecessary regulation that gets in the way of delivery. I recognise that being subject to several layers of assurance and intervention by different organisations is challenging for providers; and we continue to look critically at what we can discontinue and what we can change, so that you can spend more of your time delivering more apprenticeships. I want to continue that conversation and expect that we will have more to say on this issue very soon.

Lifelong learning and jobs, security and prosperity

The final two rungs of the ladder are lifelong learning, jobs and security. On this point I’d like to recognise the huge contribution universities’ degree apprenticeships courses make in providing access for older employees and career-switchers. Facilitating continuous career progression and getting a degree while in work is fantastic for social mobility – breaking a glass ceiling for those who can’t otherwise progress without graduate status.

I mentioned earlier that our data shows strong earnings potential for degree-level apprentices. That same publication shows that sustained employment or learning for level 6 and 7 apprentices is over 94% - a great indication that the apprenticeships you deliver set people up for prosperous careers.

UUK’s plan for growth - Progression

I want to finish by talking about UUK’s plan for growth. Greg Wade will be introducing it later this morning - so I don’t want to steal his thunder - but I want to thank him for sharing it with me.

I’d like to pick out an aspect of the plan that is close to my heart. I’d like to focus on progression.

I think you will have gathered by now that this is something I care deeply about. I believe that progression through different routes under the banner of technical education can deliver great outcomes, regardless of someone’s background.

Progression isn’t just about going from A Levels to University – or even to a degree apprenticeship. Progression could also mean moving from a T Level to a higher apprenticeship, or a Higher Technical Qualification to a degree apprenticeship. All that it takes to help people move forward and capitalise on their potential is the right support. And we can facilitate this by putting in place the right partnerships between employers, Further and Higher Education. I know that together, through degree apprenticeships, we can transform many more people’s lives in this way.

Thank you for your time.

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