Could degree apprenticeships stem student retraction and level up the UK?

05 April 2022

As the UK government continues to push its levelling up agenda, a key area of focus is on improving outcomes, access and investment in higher education (HE) for students and taxpayers, with the Department for Education (DfE) launching an open consultation on its higher education policy statement and reform.

The consultation document outlines how government investment will result in better outcomes for HE students, the economy and society, while tackling rising costs for taxpayers and reducing student and graduate debt. The financial impact of these proposals will ultimately lead to a change in behaviour amongst universities, with renewed priorities on diversifying their income streams and managing risk.

Generating diverse income streams

As universities recognise their roles and responsibilities as part of the levelling up agenda, they need to consider shifting from a traditional range of degree programmes, to one which encompasses a broader and more practical offering.

In equal measure, universities also need to broaden their learning and teaching programmes to diversify their income streams after losing EU research and Erasmus+ funding post-Brexit. With fewer research and international funding opportunities, alongside new legislation for a longer student loan repayment period, universities are at greater risk of students retracting. Given these onerous conditions under which universities are expected to maintain learning and teaching standards and meet business targets, a change in approach is imperative with the degree apprenticeship landscape becoming increasingly appealing.

Competing for degree apprenticeship programmes

Degree apprenticeship programmes enable universities to access a new student market, engage with new businesses, meet employer demand and increase social mobility. However, as all universities now look to diversity their income streams in response to the levelling up agenda, competition for degree apprenticeship programmes will be high.

While degree apprenticeship programmes are available to all universities, larger, more-established institutions are at an advantage in terms of the size of the employers they engage with; resulting in more students enrolling with one employer and meaning less administration and compliance checks required by the universities. In contrast, smaller institutions will be more likely to manage multiple contracts with smaller employers, with more resources challenges and compliance checks to conduct.

Monitoring existing risks

While the levelling up agenda will inevitably lead to a shift in the higher education landscape, there are a number of existing finance-related risks including the freezing of tuition fees for a further two years, budgetary management, cost increases and a loss of government funding.

Universities need to ensure there is a balance between profitability, quality of product and engagement, to eliminate the risk of low student success rates and poor student experience. Clear metrics with monitoring arrangements in place help to manage risk and ensure compliance with the apprenticeship funding rules.

In addition, as universities look to diversify their income streams through degree apprenticeship programmes, the need for on-campus space and facilities will be reduced, with universities becoming smaller, agile institutions with a need for a more flexible staffing approach.

Universities are encouraged to act as anchor institutions within their local communities, and the prospect of degree apprenticeship programmes and engagement with employers will increase their ability to do this. However, as this modern approach to learning and teaching lends itself to a more flexible model with a widely dispersed body of people. Will degree apprenticeships stem the flow of student retraction and level up the UK, but potentially reduce the identity and sense of belonging at university?

For more information, please contact Lisa Randall.