Is the apprenticeship levy the end for grad programmes?

Apprenticeships can provide the training that has been used to smooth over graduates' rough edges

So far the new drive for apprenticeships has been regarded with some suspicion. The Institute for Fiscal Studies argued that the scheme was "poor value for money", encouraging larger numbers of trainees but lower quality for employers.

But the extent of the levy's impact has been underestimated. Yes it changes attitudes to budgets for learning and development for the short term, but more than this it’s a shift in the nature of how employers work with the education system. A shift from being a customer to being a partner and participant.

Apprenticeships are employer-led, designed and run on the basis of specific needs in terms of skills and behaviours and the details of real-life roles. Degree apprenticeships also provide the space and opportunity for employees to apply the latest academic thinking on project work under academic and employer supervision.

These are far from being just qualifications for entry-level training. Increasingly employers are realising that the most significant opportunities around the levy in terms of organisational development will be in developing managers and other experienced staff at Bachelor's and Master’s degree levels. In this way they can deliver upskilling in specific technical areas that will allow these individuals to drive forward certain areas of innovation. The ‘apprentices’ won’t be learners but leaders.

In this context, graduate training programmes will look increasingly less attractive compared to the apprenticeship approach. The better fit between Higher Education programmes and the needs of employers developing through apprenticeships will mean that apprenticeships can provide the kinds of graduate training that have essentially been used to fill in gaps and smooth over the rough edges of graduates, and deliver an academic education and a degree award as well, all supported by the apprenticeship levy that employers will have to pay anyway. Higher-level apprenticeships have the potential to demonstrate what closer partnerships between HE and employers can deliver, not just in terms of intangible knowledge and capability but hard results from new insights and application of new skills.

The influence of the apprenticeship model is expected to be felt in HE over time, where university course portfolios are likely to increasingly reflect the demand for practical skills, from employers more aware of the potential for a tailored and more cogent collaboration – with whole courses no longer based around a subject but around the knowledge, skills and behaviours needed for roles in the workplace.

The barriers to the success of this new relationship are around perception – the ‘apprenticeship’ brand and what this means to most organisations and most employees. Even though the apprenticeship title is just a tag associated with the wider scheme of funding and strategy for vocational education, it’s an obstacle if it doesn’t confer a feeling of prestige. HR needs to find ways to clearly associate the opportunity with existing senior-level development, and make sure its status is understood both organisation-wide and among new recruits. It will be important to link apprenticeship programmes to particular and high-profile organisational change initiatives – stressing that anyone involved has a central role in shaping future success.

At Cranfield we’re using the concept of ‘Mastership’ as an alternative branding for positioning the Level 7 offering. We’ve also made a commitment to making the Level 7 apprenticeship experience the same as that for any other postgraduate participating in executive-style education, with the same admissions process and equivalent requirements in terms of qualifications and/or experience.

What looks like a sideline for L&D, or a budgeting irritation for some, could be the basis for a major re-working of the nature of the graduate. Vocational and workplace learning can grow quickly in status because of its growing links with degree and postgraduate study, and the link with innovation and career progress. It could bring the UK more in line with Germany, which has long reaped the benefits from a more positive attitude to vocational and technical study.

Lynette Ryals is pro vice-chancellor for education at Cranfield University