Developing Degree Apprenticeships: Lessons and Challenges

Since 2017 government policy has influenced how universities and businesses work together, primarily due to the introduction of the apprenticeship levy. The levy on businesses with a wage bill over £3 million has opened up a new potential market for universities at a time when demographically the number of 18 year olds has been falling. This new source of income has the potential to become part of the mainstream funding of universities but to achieve this they will need to change the way in which they work by becoming more agile and business focused.

Universities are often criticised by business for not producing graduates who are ‘work ready’, even though there have been many initiatives to address this over the years. Degree apprenticeships have raised the importance of work based learning and have forced closer working between business and universities.

Another aim of degree apprenticeships is to increase social mobility and to close the skills gap. The university has always been committed to working with employers on closing the higher level skills gap in the region, with clear goals on widening participation and social mobility. Apprenticeships can have a transforming influence on these objectives and can provide disadvantaged students with a route to a university education without building up significant debt.

The concept of ‘earn while you learn’ is proving popular, and the notion that business should pay for it with their levy is accepted, as it is the businesses that will benefit from the improved knowledge and skills in their workforce.

In order to tap into this market universities have been engaging with current business contacts whilst building bridges to new organisations. For this to work universities are having to adapt how they deliver programmes from the often rigid existing timetables for degrees to more work based flexible programmes that meets the needs of the employer.

Here at Leeds Beckett University we started our journey on apprenticeships in June 2017 and will this year see our first graduates. We started with two degrees: the Chartered Manager and Digital and Technology Solutions. This has now expanded to 14 degrees covering areas such as Management, Engineering, Surveying, Nursing, Law and Social Work. By September 2019 we will have in excess of 700 students with us studying their apprenticeships.

We have found that businesses tend to go to universities they have long standing relationships with and that they trust. As a very outward facing, business focused university we seem to be reaping the rewards as many businesses feel we understand better what they are looking for.

To respond to the degree apprenticeship initiative we have had adapt our existing curriculum to map against degree apprenticeship standards while ensuring we can deliver a degree in both traditional form as well as for those in the workplace. This has required flexibility to enable contextualisation via option modules and work based learning projects.

Whilst we are still in the ‘start up’ phase for apprenticeships the benefits are already clear. There are challenges both internally and externally but as we move to the next phase for apprenticeships we are likely to see more actual evidence of their benefits, this can only reinforce how transformative degree apprenticeships are in the relationship between business and higher education.


Ian Maude, Business Development Manager, Leeds Beckett University