Peter Francis

Northumbria University deputy vice-chancellor, Peter Francis

Develop your people, shape the future

Workforce planning, alongside the associated investment in the training and development of employees is set to undergo significant cultural change with the expansion of degree and higher apprenticeships. Northumbria University deputy vice-chancellor Peter Francis believes they offer huge opportunities for employers and universities – and that collaboration will deliver the best results.

Back in 2015, degree and higher apprenticeships were hailed by former Prime Minister David Cameron as a key strand in the Government’s skills strategy. Offering apprenticeship choices from entry-level qualifications all the way up to graduate and post-graduate qualifications, is a marked shift in focus and commitment that will have far-reaching impact.

For many employers, the announcement represents major change. It has understandably thrown up many strategic questions about organisational development and associated workforce development needs. While all businesses will have access to degree and higher apprenticeship programmes for their staff, from April this year larger organisations – including Northumbria University - will be required to pay an annual 0.5% levy on their payroll where this exceeds £3million. Employers can offer the degree apprenticeship scheme to both new recruits and existing staff, helping to create and sustain a highly skilled and competitive workforce with graduate-level skills. Indeed, just like many of our business partners, at Northumbria we are looking to make sure the levy works for us in the most productive and positive way.

Higher education institutions have been preparing for degree apprenticeships by expanding and developing their offering and creating programmes that meet the Department for Education Apprenticeship Standards. At Northumbria, we have invested early in developing high quality provision, working closely with our business partners to ensure we design programmes, and delivery and assessment strategies that offer the best possible learning experience for employees and the strongest outcome for the business. We are already working with national organisations including H.M. Revenue & Customs, Balfour Beatty, Foster + Partners, Turner and Townsend, and Tech Partnership to develop degree apprenticeship programmes.

This collaborative approach reflects Northumbria’s long history and successful track record of partnering with businesses and other organisations in a variety of ways. Whether it’s through knowledge creation and research activity, mentoring and executive coaching, continuing professional development, short courses and specialist training, part-time programmes, distance learning at undergraduate and post graduate level – and now degree apprenticeships – it’s about long term sustainable relationships built on trust and clear agreed outcomes.

The degree apprenticeship programmes we are now designing and developing are very much a partnership between the university, the apprentice and the employer, and in some cases the professional bodies. Students enrolled on degree apprenticeships divide their time between the workplace and flexible university study, so they are earning while learning and gaining real-world and real-work experience.

Combining employment status with part-time student status is regarded as hugely valuable by many of the apprentices and employers we are currently engaged with. While the employee stands to gain an undergraduate or postgraduate qualification, the employer can retain, grow, develop and replenish talent – seeing their investment in training ploughed back into the organisation to generate real benefit, embedding organisational culture and values from day one.

As one of the first UK universities to offer degree apprenticeships, we are currently investing £240,000 to expand our work-based offer. From September, we will be delivering degree apprenticeships in Chartered Surveying and Chartered Manager, as well as Digital and Technology Solutions. Our Digital and Technology Solutions programme has three pathways; Software Engineer, Business Analyst and Data Analyst. We are also exploring with businesses opportunities to deliver degree apprenticeships in Architecture, Construction, Policing, Accountancy, Law (Solicitor), Nursing and other professional areas in the future.

Again, these programmes will be designed with employers to ensure they are providing the required learning for employees. Furthermore, we will also be working in partnership with businesses and public service providers at a sector level.

Northumberia UniThe Government’s enthusiasm for bringing employer groups together in this way to shape world-class apprenticeship programmes and assessments is evident through its Trailblazer process. Trailblazers bring together groups of employers to determine the knowledge, skills and attributes they require from employees within a set of standards. Such employer and sector-led groups are seen as a key pillar of Government plans, and are likely to gain momentum in the months ahead.

Our long experience as an education provider working with partners in both the public and private sector puts us in a strong position to support those businesses and organisations involved in the Trailblazer process.

We also understand that degree apprenticeships are new and that many businesses and organisations are planning their response and exploring a variety of options. This is why our provision is designed to be demand-focused and responsive to the requirements of business. Potential apprentices have to meet similar entry requirements to that of our full time students. The dual demands of employment and study are highly challenging and we want to ensure that entrants have the talent and ability to succeed in both environments. Employers also need to gain the best return on their investment. Northumbria’s focus is therefore framed around quality, academic excellence with research-rich learning and responding quickly and positively to changing needs.

As part of our engagement strategy, we are hosting a number of events with employers to raise awareness of our current and developing offer and to gain greater understanding of their workforce development needs. The first of these events was held in February with over 120 employers from across the North East region. Stephen North, the Policy Lead for Higher and Degree Apprenticeships within the Department for Education shared current changes to the apprenticeship scheme, what this means for employers and how skills shortages in the workplace can be addressed through the Apprenticeship levy. We are currently organising more to bring together likeminded parties.

High quality learning and teaching is at the heart of our delivery model. Our Degree Apprenticeship programmes are research rich, leading edge, business focused and professional. They are taught by academics whose rich and relevant research and business knowledge combine to offer apprentices a deep learning experience. Our teaching is informed by the latest research, which ensures relevance, enhances the overall learning experience, and ensures apprentices benefit from the most up-to-date knowledge and skills. Quality face-to-face learning is further supported by a wide use of technologies and flexible teaching modes so that learning is accessible and convenient within the workplace, university and home.

Programmes will also incorporate the latest and most appropriate industry standards and accreditation, to offer both academic and professional recognition and maximise the return on investment in training. Indeed, more than 50 professional, statutory and regulatory bodies (PSRBs) accredit our programmes across the university, which means students graduate with industry-recognised professional accreditation, as well as their degree.

To take just one example of this, Northumbria’s Newcastle Business School recently achieved a double Association to Advance Collegiate Schools of Business (ACCSB) international accreditation in business and accounting, putting it in the top 1% of business schools worldwide. Newcastle Business School was also the first in Europe to gain the double accreditation as a mark of internationally-recognised excellence. Degree apprenticeships will also meet PSRB requirements; for example, successful completion of the Chartered Surveyor programme will result in Royal Institute of Chartered Surveying (RICS) accreditation. We are also working closely with the Chartered Management Institute (CMI) and the Royal Institute for British Architecture (RIBA).

The degree apprenticeship model of study is demanding for students, as they are completing their studies in parallel with a full time job. This presents a very different opportunity to young people compared to the traditional undergraduate experience. Students do not pay for training costs, tuition fees and will not incur student loans. Employers will also be able to upskill their existing employees through apprenticeship programmes which will provide opportunities for many people to gain access higher education who previously may not have considered it a viable option.

Last year we launched our first undergraduate degree apprenticeship programme in Digital and Technology Solutions, with 18 apprentices now enrolled. Interestingly half of our current cohort of degree apprentices are mature learners who now have a pathway to higher level skills and higher paid employment. The feedback has been extremely positive, from apprentices and employers alike. In short, we believe that developing in your employee a distinctive set of graduate attributes is a powerful and positive outcome - at an individual, organisational and at a wider economic level.

For more information on degree apprenticeships with Northumbria University and future events please contact: Emma Barron from the Business Development Team at or on 0191 349 5095.