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Business and Management Degree Apprenticeships – a quiet revolution, a work-in-progress, or business-as-usual?

A person sitting at a desk with a pile of books, typing on a laptop

Whilst they have been hiding under the radar, for many, alternative methods of achieving a higher education (HE) qualification - via an apprenticeship degree - are now entering the mainstream. Along with greater attention from the public, policy makers and professional commentators, degree apprenticeships are becoming part of business-as-usual for universities engaged in their provision.

In a recent Times Higher Education piece, Tom Williams (2023) referred to degree apprenticeships as a ‘quiet revolution’ in HE, towards more practical, employer-focused provision.

But are we taking for granted assumptions around the academic qualification and required standards of degree apprenticeships? And whose assumptions might count going forward?

Degree apprenticeships change the meaning of what it is to be a student, along with who studies and why. Degree apprenticeships also raise important questions around what provisions universities could and should be offering.

For example, what are the longer-term implications of degree apprenticeships for what universities do; what do degree apprenticeships mean for pedagogic theory and practice; and which actors should universities work with, and which policy agendas should they address, in this endeavour?

This blog post hopes to raise some challenges and generate some questions for future debate.

What's the context?

Eight years on from the launch of a new UK government apprenticeship strategy, and over a decade since the Richards Review offered a critique and series of recommendations to improve apprenticeship provision in England, degree apprenticeships continue to offer an important alternative route to undergraduate and postgraduate HE qualifications. Degree apprenticeships are a specific type of work-based learning that award HE qualifications as integral parts of the ‘training’ elements of apprenticeships.

Whilst work-based learning is a cornerstone of education policy in the UK - aiming to raise productivity and address workforce skills shortages across the four nations - degree apprenticeships are funded through a UK-wide employer levy with each UK nation having their own oversight and administrative arrangements.

According to the UK’s Department for Education latest statistics for May 2023 (Department for Education, 2023), degree apprenticeships (i.e., those starting at levels 6 and 7 across all subjects), accounted for nearly 16% of all starts in the 22/23 academic year – up from 13.5% for the same period in 21/22. The apprenticeship levy funded 63% of apprenticeships across all levels in England in 22/23.

High touch, high cost, high value?

The potential economic value of apprenticeships as a public investment programme is considerable, with UK government figures pointing to 5.3 million apprentices starting since 2010 (see Borland, 2023). While the merits of effective work-based learning and apprenticeship programmes are widely accepted in building workplace skills (e.g., Costley, 2021), their longitudinal effects and residual benefits to practitioners, organisations and wider society have been rather neglected in both academic literature and media reporting so far.

Students on work-based learning programmes are expected to apply ideas from academic learning into their own professional practice. Degree apprenticeship students use their own journey as a case study for learning, and to complete their qualification the apprentices are required to evidence not only their knowledge and understanding gained, but also their workplace skills and behaviours developed, during their time on programme. This adds several layers of complexity to degree-level study.

By their very nature, degree apprenticeships are therefore a high touch approach to learning with many actors supporting academic study and learning in the workplace which is further complicated by a plethora of government regulators and professional bodies providing oversight.

Tom Williams’ THE piece (April 2023) throws an interesting take on that burgeoning ménage à trois – known within degree apprenticeships as the tripartite relationship - between apprentice, educational provider, and employer. While some employers and providers have risen to the challenge, Williams argues, for the apprentice, there is a world of difference in scope, quality, and even access to off-the-job learning time between employer offers. Similarly, Ajjawi et al. (2020) highlighted varying quality of employer offering in this respect, also noting potential misalignments between student, university, and industry roles and practice.  

Creeping into learning design and curricula?

Although some university leaders consider apprenticeships as potential drivers to transform higher education, there are still many unanswered questions, including overall efficacy to induce degree apprenticeships’ ‘quiet revolution’. There remain ongoing tensions with broader traditional studies, which teach fewer direct employer-focused skills and focus more on general transferable skills as part of the HE experience.

The mainstreaming of apprentice provision for business schools also adds to ongoing questions around the legitimacy of their offerings, hidden neoliberal curricula (Smith et al., 2023) and the wider role for business schools in society. We should also consider questions on the autonomy of individual HEIs, as other stakeholder groups including policy makers and bodies such as Ofsted play their part in accreditation and appraisal.

New research agendas?

The formalisation of apprenticeship programmes into traditional HE curricula has brought about an impetus towards developing what Shulman (2005) calls ‘signature pedagogies’ - that is to say those structures, assumptions and values associated with apprenticeship learning.

However, during the eight years since their formalisation, we have not yet gained a cohesive body of theoretical underpinning into what works in degree apprenticeship programmes, and the implications of new teaching and student learning approaches including the ‘practice of practice tuition’. There is also still a struggle to align effective programme design within long-standing university accreditation requirements (Ajjawi et al., 2020).

Of the unanswered questions, we assert the underdeveloped theoretical foundation as an important gap in scholarship on apprenticeships, especially regarding the impact and effectiveness of this type of learning in business and management contexts, including longer term effects on individuals, organisations and/or society.

As a sector we need to reflect on what works in work-based learning before further widening of provision adds yet more complexity to mushrooming offerings for a future workforce. More importantly we need to find robust solutions for higher education, employers, and society, alongside supporting individual students through developing robust theory and praxis. So, whilst apprenticeship frameworks rightly marry education and skills at the centre of workplace learning, it is also important to consider how we can retain the broader values of university education as we pursue this path as business-as-usual.


Dr Fran Myers

Dr Fran Myers

Dr Fran Myers is a Lecturer in Management in the Department for People and Organisations at The Open University Business School. Her research interests include organisational and political history-making and storytelling and identity in the workplace (particularly digital identity work) alongside personal and social narratives of people at work.

Dr Kristen Reid

Dr Kristen Reid

Dr Kristen Reid is a Senior Lecturer in Work-Based Learning in the Department for Public Leadership and Social Enterprise at The Open University. She is interested in the design and delivery of work-integrated learning in distance and online contexts, and the transformative nature of work-based learning. She serves as the Academic Lead for the university’s group on work experience.

Dr Sarah Bloomfield

Dr Sarah Bloomfield

Dr Sarah Bloomfield is a Lecturer in work-based learning in the Department of People and Organisations at The Open University. Sarah works across management degree apprenticeship programs and her research and practice focus on how individual and collective managerial effectiveness can be improved in the workplace, recognising that each work situation is unique.