Digital Economy Minister Ed Vaizey today unveils a new government initiative whereby students aiming to enter the digital sector will be able to ‘earn and learn’ their way to a degree in a ‘Digital Apprenticeships’ scheme which will obviate student fees and, to an unspecified extent, the need for student loans.
In what reads as a reversal of a conventional undergraduate ‘work placement’ module, students will apply for apprentice placements with companies and study simultaneously for a full honours degree with a number of participating universities. The government will meet two-thirds of the placement’s tuition costs up to an unspecified cap, whilst the employer supplies the final third. Whether or not students have an obligation to the host company after completion of the degree is not made clear in the initial release, and though it is stated that student fees will not be required under the scheme, the level of remuneration for student participants has not been detailed.
The scheme is being funded from £20mn set aside in Budget 2014, and is aimed not only at the digital sector but specifically at the fields of web development, data analysis and technical consultancy – areas in which migrant talent currently holds strong sway in the UK marketplace due to the skills gap.
The report states: “Website development has been chosen for the pilots as a proven area of need. Only 61% of small and medium sized businesses have a website and just over half of these are selling their goods or services on-line (BIS, Small Business Survey (2012). The annual turnover of UK SMEs could be boosted by £18.8 billion per year if they all sold and marketed online. Website sales in 2012 amounted to £164 billion, up from £92 billion in 2008..”
Companies involved in the Degree Apprenticeships program through the Tech Partnership include IBM, Halifax, British Telecom, HM Revenue and Customs (HMRC), Hewlett Packard, Lloyds, Ford, GlaxoSmithKline, CGI, John Lewis and Network Rail.
Universities taking part in the initiative include University College London (UCL), Manchester Metropolitan, Aston, Exeter, Greenwich and the University of the West of England.
The Stack discussed the Degree Apprenticeship scheme with Richard Pettinger of UCL, Principal Teaching Fellow in Management Education, who said: “working with the companies and the employers that are involved means that there is a mutual benefit. It’s development of our expertise and also it’s a development of their capability to fill what is an acute and chronic skills shortage.”
Pettinger sees the web-development emphasis not only as a chance to address several areas of the UK’s chronic digital skills shortage, but also as an entry to far wider scope for the scheme at a later stage. “It’s going to be one of those things,” he observed. “this is the little plant that you buy from the garden centre, and once you’ve got that in the ground, you’re going to see all the other possibilities. Companies are going to be saying to people like us ‘Please can we include this in the program?’ or ‘Would you have anybody who is expert in area X or area Y?’”
The report addresses the concerns of many UK employers that graduates’ real-life working skills are either under-developed, too theoretical or completely absent: “This model,” it states. “breaks new ground by fully integrating on the job training and academic learning at degree level with courses co-designed by a range of employers and a range of universities specifically for apprentices, testing both the academic learning and on-the-job practical skills.”
The scheme will be piloted from April of 2015, with a view to a full-scale launch in September 2015.
The Halifax told The Stack that 30% of the company’s Degree Apprenticeships will be filled by external candidates from the most disadvantaged areas of the UK. “We have made a public commitment,” said a spokesperson. “within our Helping Britain Prosper Plan that we will create 5,000 apprenticeship positions with permanent employment by 2017 – this newest scheme will help us deliver upon our commitment.”
In addition to the full-fledged degree-oriented schemes, Vaizey’s plans include shorter government-aided digital/technology courses aimed at existing workers who need to upgrade their digital acumen, graduates, people returning to work after an absence and the unemployed. The short courses, which include technical, business and ‘interpersonal skills’ as components, are cited as new and ‘industry-accredited’.
The shorter courses are as yet unbranded, but are also backed by a significant raft of companies including Google, the BBC, Royal Mail, IBM, BT, Cisco, HMRC, National Grid, Jaguar Land Rover, Direct Line Group, Network Rail, Save the Children, ARM and Oracle.
Vacancies will be advertised in the new year by those companies taking part.
Commenting to us on whether the new scheme is intended as a replacement model for undergraduate education in the UK, Richard Pettinger is sceptical: “Will it revolutionise things? No, because the companies and organisations will say how many students they are going to take – five, or ten, or a hundred or a thousand. That is very much in the company’s hands. If as a result of this we create an extra inroad into the skills shortage that we’ve all identified, then that’s progress.”