Back to the Future with the Apprenticeship Levy

Launch of the Pearson College London Centre for Industry Engagement

Pearson College London launched the Centre for Industry Engagement in May 2017 with a lively discussion around the value of apprenticeships. Not an institution to shy away from leading the way in innovative education, the college held a Question Time-style debate which highlighted the pros and cons of degree apprenticeships and the pedagogy behind them in the light of the nascent apprenticeship levy, and the continuing value of them beyond graduation for apprentices and the businesses that employ them.

The Centre, which demonstrates Pearson College London’s commitment to authentic real world learning, aims to integrate the worlds of industry and academia for the mutual benefit of all stakeholders – students, partners in industry and the academic community. With the Apprenticeship Levy only a month old at the time of the event, this was, (as anticipated, given the panellists) a lively discussion.

Offering graduates the skills to do the job

It’s right that we pause, regularly, to consider the best ways to teach (and indeed, for our students to learn). The world of work is more competitive than ever. There is an increasing number of unemployed graduates, and employers regularly cite a skills gap between the capabilities of the graduates they recruit and the expectations they have of these employees when they join the workplace. Universities arguably have a responsibility to provide graduates with the right skills to do graduate jobs to ensure practical levels of competence, if the logic behind the employability agenda, backed up by significant levels of public spending by the Government, is accepted. Degree apprenticeships, given the way and context in which they are taught, can meet these demands and can, as stated by Roxanne Stockwell, Principal of Pearson College London - "offer a new pathway to greater social mobility".

One question oft-asked is whether apprenticeships are merely a route for ‘non-traditional’ students to find a place in HE or whether they can also suit students from a more traditional profile. Lizzie Crowley, Senior Policy Advisor at the CIPD stated that, “To achieve a more balanced labour market, to help young people get into and get on at work, we all need to work together to champion apprenticeships”. She continued, “Many graduates are ending up in jobs that they feel don’t truly utilise the skills that they have”.

Margaret Mountford, lawyer, businesswoman and judge from TV show ‘The Apprentice’ added to this by bringing into question the teaching methods employed on such programmes - “We now have this mish-mash of types of education, from degrees, to apprenticeships to degree apprenticeships and employers don’t quite know what’s what” – It’s therefore important to show them the benefits of each system in order that they can make informed choices. “Some roles are better suited to apprenticeships than others as they require a certain level of practical experience”. However, pedagogy has evolved to offer far more practical, experiential learning (which Pearson College London advocates within the classroom) than when apprenticeships were first created and this moves traditional degree study and apprenticeships closer together than ever before. 

Apprenticeships: Different? A Game Changer? A Different Game Changer?

The positioning of apprenticeships within the HE sector is still contested by some. Baroness Alison Wolf, Educational Academic, who carried out a review of vocational education in 2011 and was one of the key advocates of the idea of a hypothecated tax to fund apprenticeships, was forthright in her views that apprenticeships ought to be viewed as “different” to traditional degrees, and that people should not attempt to match the two. She had mixed feelings about this route, stating that "I think it’s a necessary requirement that it's possible to get a degree via the apprenticeship route … [but] I just have this worry that it just gives the same message: that it's only worth doing something if you have a degree. I think we need to see degree apprenticeships as apprenticeships…that’s the whole point of it. An apprenticeship is different." It’s probably fair to say that this is the perception of apprenticeships in general – that they are ‘different’. The key perhaps is ensuring that different doesn’t mean inferior, as the old perception of apprenticeships as akin to the YTS scheme of the 1980’s bore witness.

Ben Hughes, Vice Principal for Industry Engagement at Pearson College London, has since responded by calling degree apprenticeships “Game changers” and highlighting the potential for an alternative, corporate, Russell Group within industry and the HE sector to emerge. Of course this is a distinct possibility – with sought after, blue-chip companies recruiting via this route (which is becoming ever more attractive to students) the demand is likely to grow.

Is authentic, real world learning the future?

However, whilst some hold the view that vocational learning cannot be held in such high esteem, Chris Achiampong, Rotational Degree Apprentice at Pearson College London and employee with IBM stated “I’m a strong believer in vocational learning”. He indicated that whilst his friends and family were surprised that he had chosen to go down the apprenticeship route, the benefits for him are endless; his degree is fully funded, he receives a salary, he learns ‘theory’ within the classroom and ‘practice’ within the workplace. He is changing the minds of those close to him and as apprentice schemes bear fruit they will surely continue to impress their worth upon the wider public. Tom Richmond, Senior Policy Fellow at Policy Exchange, implored the need to go further in promoting apprenticeships, stating that people still don’t really understand the benefits of them. He urged schools to do more to explain this to students and, crucially, to parents.

‘Education is life itself’
So, maybe it’s time for us to pause again, and to view educational pedagogy as ‘different’ now. Rather than thinking of apprenticeships as a route for vocational professions, as a poor relative of the degree, could it be that this is the new flag bearer; the type of practical education that develops skills, the type of engaging education that develops autonomy within learners and the type of innovative pedagogy that will turn degree study on its head? Employers want ‘job-ready graduates’ and graduates want jobs, so who, then, can argue with the educational reformer John Dewey, who said “Education is not preparation for life; education is life itself. Pearson College London believes in experiential, authentic real world learning. Maybe it’s time to go back to the future.

Rod Brazier, Programme Manager 
Pearson Business School, Pearson College London