Efforts to promote the degree apprenticeship system in England by raising awareness of it as an alternative to traditional undergraduate courses and making the application process more straightforward must be accompanied by reform of engineering course requirements that exclude students who haven’t studied maths and physics at advanced level, the IET has warned.
The call for what the IET describes as “outdated” course requirements to be updated comes in response to ‘The Future of Degree Apprenticeships’, a report by Universities UK that says the government must take bold action to reform the embryonic system.
Research involving employers, apprentices, universities, potential applicants and their parents found several areas of concern, most notably that progress developing degree apprenticeships in England is being held back by poor levels of awareness. Four out of every five school pupils in Years 10 and 12 surveyed knew little or nothing at all about the application process, and only seven per cent knew about course structures.
Parents and students were nevertheless enthusiastic about the courses once they had been explained. Degree apprentices receive a salary for doing four days’ work with their employer and spending one day a week in university. There are currently more than 7,000 degree apprentices in England, with over 100 universities ready to deliver or delivering programmes.
All 49 employers surveyed said they want to offer degree apprenticeships to those from disadvantaged backgrounds and to upskill their workforce. The vast majority believe degree apprenticeships attract high-calibre learners and that degrees equip apprentices with knowledge and skills needed in a rapidly changing economy.
The final report makes four main recommendations. First is that government should lead a campaign to promote benefits of degree apprenticeships, including better careers information and guidance at an earlier age, and that UCAS should make the application system as straightforward as it is for undergraduate degrees.
In parallel, it calls on the government to invest in initiatives that support social mobility and lifelong learning, and encourage underrepresented groups to consider following this career path.
In terms of sectors, the system needs to develop to meet demand for skills in areas such as digital technology, management and public services, and to boost regional economies.
Within industry, it says, measures are needed that make it easier for employers to include a degree within their apprenticeships.
Universities UK represents 136 universities in England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, although its report focuses on degree apprenticeship uptake in England. Chief executive Alistair Jarvis believes the current system’s levels of bureaucracy are a problem for employers and universities.
“Government must take the lead in promoting these and in reforming the system so more people know about degree apprenticeships and can do them,” he said. “It’s time to strip this back and put the needs of employers at the heart of the degree apprenticeship system.”
Speaking on behalf of the IET, Education Policy Lead Stephanie Baxter said that while there’s an urgent need to get more young people studying engineering, vast numbers of candidates are excluded because they haven’t formally studied maths and physics, or are unsure of options available to them after completing GCSE qualifications.
“This is an outdated view that we need to change, coupled with a re-aligned focus to promote the benefits of vocational routes into STEM careers. We’re not saying that these subjects aren’t important, but the role of an engineer is about solving creative challenges, so we must also harness students’ creativity and look at ways in which we can broaden the curriculum to be more attractive.
“It is also crucially important that engineering courses refocus on teaching problem solving and creating solutions to improve our world and society,” Baxter added. “This should also include an element of high-quality work experience so that students are adequately prepared for the workplace and are equipped with the skills employers demand.”
The IET believes the important principles of maths and physics can be taught in a relevant ‘work-ready’ way as part of a degree. It has identified several innovative ways in which engineering courses and programmes are delivered at UK institutions in a report published in collaboration with the Engineering Professors Council, ‘New Approaches to Engineering Higher Education’ .
As well as changing entry criteria to remove the roadblock for those who have studied humanities or arts subjects, other measures that have proved successful include refocusing the HE curriculum away from ‘theory’ to creating solutions to make a better world, offering internships, placements and work-related learning opportunities, and making courses more appealing and accessible to women and mature students.
“Whilst degree apprenticeships are one area that can make a difference, we need to ensure the routes into careers such as engineering and technology meet the impending skills demands,” said Baxter. “The IET believes adopting these approaches will help to address this and is calling for fundamental changes to the entry criteria that most UK universities currently require before students can start engineering undergraduate degree programmes.”