Degree apprenticeships – advice for university departments

checklist shutterstock_201988354Our checklist of things to consider if you’re proposing to launch a degree apprenticeship programme.  Do please contact us if you have any other advice you’d like to share.






A note on the student cohort

There is an overall lack of familiarity around this approach to study in the UK at present. It is not only employers and universities that need to convince and be convinced; it is also the prospective apprentices/students – and their advisers. Both advisers and students need to have confidence that they are going to get a great education at this level, with excellent employment prospects, and also the opportunities that higher education open up, whatever route is taken.

The student cohort needs to be developed through extensive outreach effort and developed in line with employers’ needs so make sure you get your colleagues in your outreach and recruitment department involved early.  New methods of assessment of the suitability students for this different approach are needed so as to be sure that they will commit themselves to a full programme of study and apprenticeship, and to the employer, for the full period (and for any indemnity period that the employer may insist on after graduation).

Consultation and market data

A key difference between conventional courses and degree apprenticeships is that the latter are intended to be employer led, and developed to meet explicit employer needs ( with the university effectively acting as suppliers to the employer “customer”.

Nevertheless, as with any new development, it is essential that those universities and HEIs considering developing degree apprenticeship programmes do a full market research and consultation exercise with likely and potential employers. This exercise has the purpose of:

  • Ascertaining interest;
  • Determining numbers and take up;
  • Engaging with the wider community in designing and delivering what is required;
  • Developing a joint publicity and engagement strategy for the programmes intended.

There is also a major engagement effort required with schools and sixth form colleges in order to present what is proposed as a real alternative to post 18 entry to work or mainstream university study.

These programmes open up a whole new “market” for universities and so can’t really be evaluated in the same way as new proposal for a more traditional degree.  The potential to open up wider relationship opportunities than might not immediately arise from “standard” degree offerings need to be taken into account too, for example.


The overall structure of a degree apprenticeship proposal needs full attention to all of the details that would go into a mainstream university undergraduate programme, and to all the details that would go into a normal programme of 18-year-old entry into employment. These have to be agreed in advance. They have to meet the constitution of the university and also the demands of the employers – but with the overriding consideration that they must be designed in accordance with the relevant national apprenticeship standards. They have also to be structured in ways that deliver the value sought by the apprentices/students.

The national the apprenticeships standards model (as opposed to the previous apprenticeship frameworks), define the curricula and expected outcomes of any degree apprenticeship.  The rules for apprenticeships mandate that these standards are developed by consortia of employers and relevant professional bodies (plus potentially one or more education providers). These are termed “Trailblazers”.

The first raft of these “Trailblazer” degree apprenticeship standards have been developed and are available for delivery now. Both these and any future new degree apprenticeship programmes are required to be structured either as:

  • a fully-integrated apprenticeship degree course which delivers and tests both academic learning and the vocational skills needed by the job role or
  • a degree programme to deliver the academic knowledge requirements, plus additional training to meet the full apprenticeship and a separate test of full occupational competence at the end of the apprenticeship ( for example, delivered by a relevant professional body)

Where can I find a list of approved degree apprenticeship standards?

 Apprenticeship standards: Skills Funding Agency (updated 20th May, 2016)

List of all the apprenticeship standards (updated 20th May, 2016)


Length and structure of programme

With the above in mind, the study mode has to be agreed, and this then forms the core of the contractual agreement that is to be entered into. The balance of study ‘guidance’ is 80/20, with the 80 taking place wholly or mainly on employers’ premises and the 20 at the HEI. The standard university undergraduate programme is three years; and while spreading the degree apprenticeship out over 4 or even 5 years may look superficially attractive, this has to be seen in the light of the expectations of the 18-year-old to make progress and demonstrate achievement over a lesser period. If there are to be retention or penalty clauses for early departure from the programme, these have to be written in and made clear.   See our case study for the innovative approach taken by the University of Sheffield.

Constitution of programme

The constitution of the programme is formed around the 80/20 principle and what is done and how then becomes a matter for agreement in the contract. There are two main approaches:

  • The university agrees with each employer a programme of education to be delivered at the university;
  • The university agrees a more generic programme which is suitable for a range of degree apprenticeships and then offers/agrees with a range of employers which have their own specific on the job demands and needs, but within which the university generic programme fits.

The “on the job” work then has to be fitted in with the requirements of the employers, and needs to be agreed and structured in ways that fit in with HEI schemes of award. This means particular attention to, and agreement on:

  • Programme award, the name and description of the degree, length and structure of study, and the different classifications of award;
  • Scheme of award, which will be through the universities’ own constitution;
  • Examination board and constitution: the names and roles and functions of those who participate and the nature of employer assessment and involvement and influence;
  • Examiners and external examiners, and especially whether the university constitution allows for non-academics on exam boards (and if not, then how to integrate the employer interests in the examination processes);
  • Classification of degree award, and the extent to which this fits in with existing practices, or whether the university and employers wish to design new classifications and structures;
  • Chair and constitution of exam board, which again needs to be formalised to the agreement of all;
  • Delivery of results, in accordance with programme specifications, degree awarding processes, and the constitution of the university;
  • Graduation, which needs also to be stated and formalised.

Interim awards may also be either offered by the university or demanded by the employers, and the issuing of certificates and diplomas at different stages of progress may be required or appropriate in some cases.

Agreeing the business case

As for all new programme proposals, numbers of students required in order to make a programme viable is crucial. This needs to be clearly stated and written into the contracts that will be signed. This is vital anyway; but particularly vital when offering a degree apprenticeship programme that is formed around a number of employers, consortia, trade federations and SMEs. If for example the university contracts to run such a programme for 20 students and there are only 17/18/19, then this can lead to all sorts of debates and discussions – and conflicts – if for example every employer except one has delivered the numbers promised. This must be clearly understood, and must also be recognised and addressed as a key part of the contract.  Close co-operation between the lead academic department and the HEI’s finance and planning services will be needed and, as we said earlier, a very different approach taken to evaluating viability than for a standard academic programme.  The longer term and broader relationship to be developed with the company will need to be taken into account, for example, along with the opportunity to access a new funding source.

Length of contract

The length of contract will vary according to particular circumstances. It appears unlikely that any contract of less than 5-6 years is going to deliver the benefits sought by all. Universities need to have the stability. Employers do not want to give the impression that they are dipping into and out of the latest ideas. This kind of stability also informs the wider branding, confidence and substantive development that this initiative needs in the eyes of all concerned – and especially, as above, students and their advisors.

Schedule of teaching and learning

Schedules of teaching and learning need to be agreed. These can take various forms:

  • Day release;
  • Block release;
  • Integration with some modules on some mainstream regular taught programmes.

There may also be periods of study on employers’ premises and at other institutions. These again have to be agreed and contracted.

Methods of grading, assessment and feedback need to be agreed and these will then be adhered to, in order to satisfy the exam board and other university regulations. The structures of assessment (presentations, experiments, lab work, practicals, as well as essays and exams) have also to be integrated throughout the programmes.

Agreeing employer-led content is vital from the above points of view. In employer led content, the university is required to have a position of ‘internal external examiner’ and in some universities this may mean that designated employer staff are given the status of adjunct employee at the university in question.

Examining employer-led content and the means by which this is done has to be agreed and contracted. It is essential to recognise that this can lead to conflicts, where for example:

  • The work is of a satisfactory university standard but has no practical relevance to the employer;
  • The work is of a satisfactory standard for the employer but does not meet the standards required by the university.

University staff will therefore need to remain in close contact and regularly visiting employers’ premises in order that neither of these positions occurs. Where there are disputes over standards, there needs to be an agreed means of arbitration and reconciliation of grades and work.

Student registration is an issue because of the UK UCAS regulations that govern undergraduate admissions to programmes at this level. This may have to be agreed as a formality; if students are not to apply via UCAS then an alternative is required, that is agreed and contracted. There may be disputes also over:

  • A candidate that is deemed suitable by the employer but not the university;
  • A candidate that is deemed suitable by the university but not the employer;
  • Levels of school achievements prior to admissions;
  • Variations in the principle of equality and fairness of treatment which govern all admissions at this level.

What are the funding arrangements?

There are two crucial differences in the funding arrangements for apprenticeships compared to conventional degree courses.  Firstly the body responsible for the funding is the Skills Funding Agency or SFA rather than HEFCE, and secondly with the contractual arrangements with the employer rather than the student as the primary customer (the university is essentially a contracted supplier of education services to the employer under the apprenticeship model).  The government also pays a contribution towards the cost to a pre-agreed maximum sum defined at the point of approval with the SFA.   These different funding mechanisms have a very different set of terminology and processes than those which universities are more commonly familiar.

An HEI needs to (or apply to) be included on the Skills Funding Agency’s Register of Training Organisations (ROTO).  SFA will announce when ROTO is open to new applicants.  In addition to inclusion on ROTO an HEI will until the introduction of the Apprenticeship levy need to secure an SFA ‘allocation’ to claim funding to deliver Degree Apprenticeships.  SFA has in the last 15 months run two procurement rounds opening ROTO to HEIs and inviting HEIs to apply for an allocation.  HEIs that are not on ROTO and do not have an allocation should prepare for forthcoming procurement rounds.   HEIs not on ROTO may also want to consider how they can deliver Higher and Degree Apprenticeships with an FEC that is on ROTO and has an allocation.

In summary, to deliver a higher apprenticeship an HEI must be either:

  • listed on the Skills Funding Agency (SFA) Register of Training Organisations (ROTO) and already receive funding for apprenticeship delivery from the SFA
  • a subcontractor to another HEI or FEI listed on the SFA’s Register of Training organisations who are in receipt of funding for apprenticeships from the SFA
  • successful applicants to an SFA HEI expression of interest for higher and degree apprenticeship delivery as outlined below

Any HEI who already holds an SFA funding agreement which contains an apprenticeships allocation can go ahead and deliver higher and degree apprenticeships.

For HEIs who do not hold an existing contract to deliver apprenticeships with the SFA, the SFA ran its first expression of interest (EOI) round for HEIs with a clear plan for higher and degree apprenticeship delivery as part of their offer to employers in March 2016; this complements the additional £13m which government allocated to further education institutions (FEIs) in late 2014 to expand their higher apprenticeship provision. Further information is available by registering on the SFA’s procurement portal.

HEIs may deliver the whole apprenticeship directly or, act as the lead apprenticeship provider, sharing the delivery by subcontracting with other HEIs or FEIs.

The SFA is also offering automatic entry onto the ROTO to HEIs meeting specific criteria.

  1. Those in receipt of direct public grants for HE.
  2. Those including institutes of the University of London.
  3. Those who have the right to award one or more types of UK degree
  4. Those who have not had any material concerns raised as part of the HEFCE process of financial risk assessment.



The standard undergraduate fee is £9k per annum at present. This may of course be varied in the contract with the employer, by agreement. The employer is liable for the course fees (not the student/apprentice). HEFCE have also stated that the higher cost subject premium will be available for eligible subjects (as for standard degree programmes).

In the funding model under trial for apprenticeship standards during 2014 to 2015 and 2015 to 2016, the government contributes two-thirds of the total agreed price, up to a cap, with employers contributing the other third in cash, all paid to the lead provider in a payment schedule agreed with the employer.

Funding is quite different from standard degree programmes.  It is earned against actual activity.  All apprentices must have an Individual Learner Record (ILR) file. Payments are earned by the HEI by confirming through the apprentice’s ILR record that they have received the latest employer one-third payment against their agreed payment schedule. ILR completion triggers the government’s two-thirds payment.

Development Funding

The Department for Business, Innovation and Skills has also recently announced the Degree Apprenticeship Development Fund.

 The fund will provide £8 million starting in academic year 2016/17 to help universities and colleges work with employers to develop new degree apprenticeships ready for delivery from academic year 2017/18.

The Skills Funding Agency will receive a further £2 million to encourage more learners to take up degree apprenticeships.

Queries about how to apply for funding can be sent to:

Further advice and information