Launched in 2015, degree apprenticeships (DAs) are still relatively new – and I believe they offer exciting opportunities for the higher education (HE) sector.
Introduced by then-business secretary Vince Cable, DA courses originally sought to reduce the UK’s skills gap while also raising the reputation of apprenticeships.
They hold great promise to do both, while also extending access to education; DAs can reach diverse learner in new ways, attracting students who previously thought a degree programme was ‘not for me’ - or simply not possible.
A win-win solution
Students embarking on a DA course work full-time while, generally, attending university one day a week. They don’t pay any tuition fees as courses are funded by a levy payable by all large employers. This makes them an affordable option.
For students, it’s a win-win: they end up with an apprenticeship and a degree without accruing the debt often associated with university fees. In terms of course material, the university-taught content of a DA is the same as that studied by students following a traditional degree programme – but DA learners also need to meet requirements set out by the Institute for Apprenticeships.
Digital literacy and safety
Digital literacy and security is vital. Where I work, at the University of Portsmouth, many of our learners are drawn from the military and other industries dealing with highly confidential information, such as the NHS and the defence sector. The documents they are required to submit to academic staff and assessors for their DA must therefore be shared on a safe online system.
In terms of digital literacy, meanwhile, the fact that the students are on campus for only a day per week – or, in the case of learners working in the army, for just two weeks a year - means that staff and students must be able to work and communicate together remotely.
Rising to the challenge
To meet these technical challenges at Portsmouth, we have made extensive use of Google apps - particularly Google Sites for e-portfolios (which most DA students are required to build) and Google Docs for sharing information.
Surprisingly, we find that many learners arrive at university with little or no experience of Google beyond the search engine, so we run a series of sessions on sharing documents securely. Remote communication, particularly with soldiers posted in remote areas of the world, has proven to be the most challenging area for us. Thus far, we have relied on Cisco’s Webex system to overcome this. We’re now exploring new options, such as Zoom.
‘A valuable asset’
In 2016, Portsmouth launched its first DA with just seven students. Today, we have 600 across the university. In a 2019 survey of our DA business students (using the Jisc digital insights survey) 73% said they felt well-supported as distance learners – and, among this cohort, we have a 100% retention rate. But for evidence of success, it’s best to hear from learners themselves.
As Tom Sherratt, one of our military DAs, says: “I have discovered tremendous amounts of new data, literature and learning environments - but above all else I believe that when I complete my DA, I will be a valuable asset to the army and to any future employer due to the transferability of the skills learnt.”
Andrew Taggart is an online course developer at Portsmouth University. His Digifest presentation, ‘degree apprenticeships - meeting the technical and teaching challenges’ takes place at 12:10 on 10 March 2020. Registration for Digifest 2020 is now open and free for staff, students and researchers at members organisations.