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Should NZ consider the degree-apprenticeship model?

06 June 2019 | news

A not-infrequent criticism of the traditional degree is that it requires young people to take a number of years out of work while they study. By contrast, the traditional apprenticeship model for trades like builders, plumbers, and electricians has people learning and earning as they qualify.

In 2016, England made a deliberate effort to close that gap by introducing what it called the ‘degree apprenticeship’. It is, as you might expect, a way of providing a degree-level education for people who are working. It’s aimed at the professions—fields such as engineering, business management, and finance.

How does it work and is it something New Zealand should be thinking about?


The degree-apprenticeship model was launched in England in 2016. At the time it was launched, funding per student was set at exactly double the funding provided for students doing a more typical campus-based qualification. This was because it was recognised that universities would have much higher costs per student—developing different curricula and assessments for each individual workplace and supervising comparatively small numbers of students in those workplaces. All funding for degree-apprenticeships initially came from Government.

In May 2017 (just ahead of the start of the Northern Hemisphere’s academic year in July) funding conditions were changed, and all employers with a payroll of more than £3m (around NZ$5.82m) had a levy of 0.5% (half of one percent) of their payroll imposed on them. The levy gave employers a credit that could be spent on apprenticeships.

The May 2017 changes also mean that employers and universities can negotiate the cost of delivering degree-apprenticeships into each individual workplace. That amount is the funding that universities claim back from the levy fund.

Employers with payrolls of less than £3m can also access degree-apprenticeships. They must contribute 5% of the cost of the apprenticeship and Government will make up the difference. Again, the total cost of each apprenticeship is agreed on case by case.

In 2016, 7% of all new apprenticeship were at degree level (around 34,600 out of 495,000 new apprenticeships started in that year). In 2017, 13% were at degree level (around 48,900 of 376,000 new apprenticeships started in that year).

At the most recent UK Quality Assurance Agency Conference (7 May 2019), Liverpool John Moores University shared its experiences with degree-apprenticeships.

They have 700 students doing a degree-apprenticeship qualification (up from zero in 2016). Degree-apprenticeships require a completely different set of arrangements to normal degree programmes. They had to develop different quality assurance systems, different tools and systems for dealing with the funding processes, and mechanisms for working with many very diverse employers. For the university to be able to do this well, it needs many hundreds of students to get the necessary economies of scale.

Business connections

The degree-apprenticeships have created a lot of new connections between the university and employers. Employers now have more connection to their local university, which is leading to more industry/academia collaboration in other areas, such as businesses wanting to access the knowledge of university academics and/or to carry out joint research.

One of the university’s students spoke at the conference. She was doing a degree in quantity surveying. It was going to take her five to six years to complete what would normally be a three-year on-campus degree; she felt this practical hands-on style of learning suited her better than a more theoretical classroom-based experience. Her comment was that unless she could actually do something, she just struggled to learn it.

Her typical week involved spending Mondays on campus attending lectures and tutorials and the rest of the week at work applying her skills in the office and on project building sites. She loved earning while learning.

So, back to the original question: is the degree-apprenticeship model something New Zealand should be considering?

In England, many employers complain about the mandatory nature of the levies and the fact that they force employers to do training of this sort whether they would have or not previously.

Clearly it works for the students who are doing it and we know that many employers find they can develop their staff with exactly the skills and knowledge they need to be effective and valuable employees.

On the face of it then, it works well for some students and employers and—for them—delivers more value than a traditional campus-based education. But it is more expensive and current New Zealand tuition funding levels are probably about half of what would be needed for a system of this sort to work well here.

Overall, it seems like a model that should be given serious consideration as New Zealand rethinks how it delivers its more vocational education and training.

82% of all New Zealand university students are doing education that is preparing them for a particular vocation or industry—whether accountancy, law, veterinary practice or agriculture. Like England, we undoubtedly also have students who would learn better in a workplace environment where they can immediately apply theory to practice.

There could be benefit in trying this here.