Blog: Degrees with real impact

13 April 2018

Dr Tim Bradshaw, Chief Executive of the Russell Group, writes about the history of innovation in universities which has led to the development of degree apprenticeships through long-term partnerships with employers.

If you read some of the recent coverage of universities, you would be forgiven for thinking they only offer courses that are solely ‘academic’, with little apparent value to students or the economy. But that is so far from the truth it is a scandal it gets repeated. Universities are, in fact, the mainstay of the UK’s knowledge economy and lead in training people with the high-level skills they need for the future. Given the uncertainties ahead in our economy and society, it is perhaps even more relevant than ever that we train people to be flexible, innovative and resilient – just some of the key traits that students learning in a research-intensive environment can expect to acquire through their studies at a Russell Group university.

We have a long history of innovation in our universities and respond to changing demands from the economy and society in terms of what and how we teach. Some of the constituent colleges in our universities were originally set up to repopulate the clergy following the Black Death, for example, but now our universities are working hand in hand with high-tech industry, charities, the NHS and leading professional service firms to deliver against the skills needs of tomorrow.

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Indeed, more than 2000 undergraduate degree and integrated Masters courses at Russell Group universities are backed by employers and various Professional, Statutory and Regulatory Bodies (PSRBs). Our graduates are highly valued by employers and 80% of those who enter employment within 6 months of graduating from a Russell Group university are in professional jobs. Every year, our 24 universities train around 80% of the UK’s doctors and 39% of the UK’s engineers.

But we don’t rest on our laurels, our universities continue to innovate and now a number are also leading the way in developing the new degree apprenticeships. This is a natural development from the long-term partnerships we already have with employers. Necessarily this new initiative will start small but, if the demand from employers and individuals grows, and if appropriate funding is available to develop new courses, we can expect this sector of the market to have a successful future.

The universities that provide degree apprenticeships do so where it is appropriate or necessary for their local area. For example, the University of Sheffield identified a lack of skills in high-value manufacturing that was holding back the region’s ability to expand its local businesses. The first cohort of 150 Advanced Apprentices joined the Advanced Manufacturing Research Centre in 2013, and in September 2017, 90 apprentices began to study for degrees in Integrated Materials and Rail engineering, achieving professional accreditation alongside employment, with the opportunity to progress to study at Masters level.

The University of Leeds has entered into a partnership with other education providers and Leeds Teaching Hospitals Trust to develop a leadership and management master’s degree apprenticeship. This is due to accept apprentices from September 2018. Also beginning at the start of the next academic year will be a flagship national technology degree apprenticeship at Queen’s University Belfast. The programme has been developed in association with PricewaterhouseCooper and will boost technology employment – something that is essential to growth potential in financial services and advanced manufacturing within Northern Ireland. Students will have the opportunity to undertake a degree in computer science or software engineering.

Similarly, the University of Warwick is working closely with employers in the west Midlands and Queen Mary University London is linked in with city employers to design and deliver degree apprenticeships that meet their needs, and the list is growing.

But apprenticeships are not necessarily the best option for everyone, or every industry, and that’s why Russell Group universities offer a range of courses. They develop bespoke graduate, postgraduate and continued professional development training, and do this in conjunction with employers. For example, Newcastle University has developed a BA Honours degree in Business Accounting and Finance, jointly with PricewaterhouseCoopers and the Institute of Chartered Accountants in England and Wales. The degree’s structure gives students the chance to put classroom theory into commercial practice through a placement. The University of Glasgow’s Internship Hub supports students to secure, and make the most of, quality project-based internships and maximise students’ employability skills. First established in 2002 with 20 participating companies, the Internship Hub now works with hundreds of local, national and international organisations and has successfully placed over 1,900 interns.

The Government’s Industrial Strategy recognises that there is a shortage of technical skills, but we must remember that degree apprenticeships are not the only way to develop those skills. If we want to create a diverse workforce with the right skills to boost the UK economy, then we need diverse provision of education to meet the needs of students and employers.

The links we have with employers may be one of the reasons why the top 10 UK universities for graduate employability, according to the 2017 QS Graduate Employability Rankings, are all Russell Group members and it is also why we are able to work with leading employers to develop new programmes and ways of working.

Our universities deliver degrees with real impact and we will continue to be at the forefront of developments in learning and teaching to take this even further.

First published in the 2018 Apprenticeships Anthology by Queen Mary University London and The Good Schools Guide.

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