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Not just the job: Could degree apprenticeships work for your students?

Monday 9th March 2020

Since they were rolled out in 2015, degree apprenticeships (DAs) have been embraced by universities and employers nationwide, and received a mixture of positive and negative press.

However, most school students – as well as many teachers and parents – remain unfamiliar with this relatively new route for progression.

Some learners are unaware that getting their degree as an apprentice is even an option, while others’ views are based on patchy or inaccurate information.

In partnership with Sheffield Hallam University, HeppSY delivers specific DA sessions so school and college students can feel more clear and confident when considering this option.

The following points are based on what we’ve heard in those sessions, and will hopefully highlight essential degree apprenticeship information as well as busting a few myths.

Five key facts 

1. What is a degree apprenticeship? A degree apprenticeship is a partnership between an employer and a “learning provider”. The apprentice has a paid job with the employer, but also studies on a part-time basis for a degree-level qualification which is linked to their area of work. This process normally takes 3.5 – 5.5 years.

2. How is a degree apprenticeship different to a traditional, full-time undergraduate degree? While a DA usually results in the same L6 qualification, young people may find the experience quite different to that of their friends on full-time courses. Degree apprentices spend most of their days at work, and attend university either on “day release” or “block release”. The former means they spend one day per week at university for teaching (during term time), while the latter could involve teaching blocks of several days every few weeks or months.

3. What sort of subjects can be studied through a degree apprenticeship? New apprenticeship courses are consistently being developed, but there’s already a significant range available. Popular areas include Management, Digital Technology, and Engineering, and various routes are available under these broad areas. For example, Digital Technology could involve a specialism in Cyber Security, Software Engineering or IT Consultancy. Other DA subject areas include Healthcare, Construction and Surveying, Laboratory Science, Law, and Policing. (As you might guess, “academic” subjects such as English, Politics, or Physics are unlikely to become DAs because they don’t obviously connect to specific jobs.)

4. When do learners apply for degree apprenticeships? Y13/final year of college is when your students can start looking for degree apprenticeship vacancies. There’s no set window for when vacancies become available, so it’s crucial that students are proactive and persistent when looking and applying for these job roles, particularly as a job advert may only be online for a few weeks.

5. Do degree apprentices receive any student financial support? Degree apprentices cannot access support from Student Finance England, partly because apprentices do not have to pay tuition fees for their degrees. (The cost of degree apprentices’ learning is covered through the apprenticeship levy.) While degree apprentices cannot therefore apply for a maintenance loan, they are paid a salary by their employer. DA salaries can vary significantly by sector and individual company, from £12,000 to £20,000+. Apprentices would usually expect to receive a pay rise during their apprenticeship, and/or when they complete it. 

FAQs/Common misconceptions

As students may find out, apprenticeship jobs are not always in the same city as the university which teaches the attached degree. Obviously, this could have implications for their commuting, accommodation, and financial planning. Below are some more examples of points which are often raised during activity at schools and colleges.

“I don’t want to go to uni.”  A DA doesn’t provide a “typical” student experience, and could therefore be attractive for students who don’t like the idea of spending every day in a classroom. However, DAs entail the same level of content as a full-time course, so apprentices need to be academically able and committed.

“What grades do I need?” DAs almost always require L3 qualifications (A levels; BTECs; or equivalent). The grades needed will vary by employer and learning provider, but often involve B and C grades at A level, or D and M grades at BTEC. That said, apprenticeships with larger companies and high starting salaries will usually demand higher grades. It’s worth emphasising to students that work experience – whether specific to their desired apprenticeship industry or not – can be a really valuable addition to their application.

“Where do I find vacancies and how do I apply?” Students can look for vacancies in various places, but the Government’s apprenticeships website is a good place to start. UCAS now has a dedicated apprenticeships page, and Notgoingtouni is also a useful resource. Students can also check the careers pages of major firms or organisations to see if they offer any degree apprenticeship routes.

“I’ve not applied to university, so I’ll just apply for an apprenticeship.” There are relatively few DA vacancies available in comparison to the number of full-time university places. For instance, there were 11,000 DA starts in England in 2018/19, whereas Sheffield Hallam University enrolled about 7,000 new full-time undergraduates in the same year. Moreover, competition for DA roles is often very strong, with multiple-stage recruitment processes and many more applicants than jobs available. Students must recognise that they need to be active and considered in how they apply, to give themselves the best chance of landing a role they want.

Can I stay in student halls? This possibility varies from university to university. Some allow degree apprentices to stay in their student accommodation – either for teaching blocks or throughout the year – but other universities will not offer this option. It would also be up to an apprentice to decide if they want to share a flat with learners who may have less intense schedules. Similarly, some students ask if they will still be able to participate in university sport or societies as a degree apprentice. Again, this will vary by university and by the nature of their work schedule and teaching timetable, but generally apprentices will have less opportunity to get involved in a university’s extracurricular offer. After all, if they’re not at work on a weekday it’s likely they’ll have a full day of teaching on the cards. 

Hopefully the above will provide some helpful context for discussing this subject with your students. If you have further questions, or wish to enquire about activity at your school or college, feel free to contact Martin Flynn at martin.flynn@shu.ac.uk.

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