John MacIntyre

University of Sunderland pro vice-chancellor professor John MacIntyre

Aiming Higher to grow skills.

Pro vice-chancellor Professor John MacIntyre tells Paul Robertson how the University of Sunderland is building on a legacy of a century of learning, to ensure the city and region has the higher skills employers need for the economy to prosper.

The idea of universities getting involved in apprenticeships is a relatively new concept but it makes perfect sense to a man who began his life as an apprentice and became in his own words “an accidental academic.”

As pro vice-chancellor of the University of Sunderland, Professor John MacIntyre has played a key role in the development of academic programmes leading to Higher Apprenticeships and Degree Apprenticeships. It has not been without challenges, not least because some employers may need to understand how these new, higher level programmes can be delivered and benefit businesses in their sector.

“Employers are still getting used to the concept as they don’t normally see apprenticeships as a pathway to a degree,” said Prof MacIntyre. “But they can help businesses transform their performance by enhancing the skills of existing employees as well as attracting fresh talent.”

Sunderland is one of only 18 universities in the UK to receive Government funding to support its drive to increase apprenticeships across the country – largely down to the early success of a programme it began with professional global services company Accenture.

“The digital sector has been an early adopter and the first programme developed was Digital and Technology Solutions which leads to a BSc (Hons) degree,” said Prof MacIntyre. “It has gone very well with Accenture and we now have Northumbrian Water on board as well as Geek Talent, the first local SME to engage.”

The programme was created through the Employer Ownership of Skills initiative which puts employers firmly in the driving seat when it comes to deciding the skills, competencies and knowledge required to do the job.

“Employers were saying ‘these are the skills we need’ - the digital sector got right off the blocks in writing new standards and engaging with us to deliver,” said Prof Macintyre. “The first cohort of 16 from Accenture started in September 2015 – while the second intake started last year with 26 learners from Accenture, Northumbrian Water and Geek Talent.”

From September this year a new Management and Leadership Practice, BA (Hons) Chartered Manager degree apprenticeship, designed with a range of employers and the Chartered Management Institute, will begin.  “One of the interesting points about this programme is that it is not sector specific,” said Prof MacIntyre. “It is targeted at creating the managers for the future, it is about the skills and behaviours of being a professional manager.”

The programme is delivered using a blended learning approach by experienced tutors holding lectures, seminars, coaching, group work, computer-based learning and independent study. There is a strong element of work-based learning and project work.

All the Degree Apprenticeships have been developed to provide the core skills and competencies of the subject but with the flexibility to be tweaked to suit the needs of individual employers. However, not all sectors have been as quick as digital to embrace the opportunity.

“Engineering and manufacturing employers have been very wary and unsure,” said Prof MacIntyre. “They have tended to look more to graduate recruitment and don’t normally have a graduate development programme. In that sector a lot of employers have apprenticeships targeted at low level skills – at production operator level – so they have been interested in what we can offer but have adopted a wait and see position. It has been a big job to engage with employers in that sector.”

However, progress is being made and the university is hoping to validate a suite of three engineering degrees – manufacturing engineer, product engineer and electronic & electrical engineer – in time to recruit for the next academic year; working with the likes of the EEF, the North East Automotive Alliance and EAL, the specialist awarding organisation for industry.

Prof MacIntyre said: “This university prides itself on being outward facing, employer engaged and flexible in meeting the needs of industry. Think of it as a tripartite arrangement – the university and its academics, the employers and the apprentices. Our academics in digital have enjoyed teaching the students as they are really engaged and up for it, the employers are seeing the growth of their apprentices and the students are loving it.

“There is a lot of work-based learning assessment - an apprenticeship is against an employer-led standard and contextualising the skills taught in the classroom, in the workplace.

“Compared to a student coming here on a traditional career pathway, they have no student debt, fees are paid by their employer and they are earning at the same time, with the commitment of an employer investing in them.

“Since launching Degree Apprenticeships, we have had floods of individuals and many parents wanting to get their children onto the programmes, but that’s not how it works. To be on the programme someone has to be employing you and committing you to the apprenticeship.”

It is hardly surprising Prof MacIntyre is passionate about the value of education with a heavy workplace-bias. He was an apprentice compositor at the Shields Gazette in the 1970s. “It wasn’t a Degree Apprenticeship but it was about taking a young person and building up their skills so they became valued,” he said. “The apprenticeships were long and it was a big commitment from the employers. I see Degree Apprenticeships as the next logical step for vocational training – you can go and do a masters degree and even a doctorate now after an apprenticeship.

“My own experience is a very important part of my life and led to me becoming an accidental academic. The business where I worked was still using hot metal, very old technology. I was being taught the new technology but there was nowhere to deploy those skills at work. As the technology was changing I could see how the craft I was being trained for and the skills were likely to be outdated so I decided studying computing was the thing to do.”

After a short time overseas, he took a full-time night-shift job in the print works and, at what was then Sunderland Polytechnic, he spent his days doing a degree in computer science and physiology. “I was on target for a First Class Honours degree and was asked if I wanted to do a PhD linked to industry,” said Prof Macintyre. “I did it in applied artificial intelligence, working in an engineering context with National Power at Blyth Power Station.

Sunderland 02“I was on £6k a year and skint. The PhD allowed me to do six hours’ teaching a week so I started and loved it while doing my research. As I came towards the end of the PhD the poly had become a university and they asked me to stay on as an academic and I became a senior lecturer in 1996.

“So, I have been an undergraduate, doctoral, part and full time lecturer, a reader, professor, associate dean, dean and now pro vice-chancellor. I was in industry before academia, I came to get better skills and a degree to get a better job in industry. The experience made me very aware of the perception of the difference between the academic and industry road to a career and I feel I have been able to bridge that gap.”

Unlike some institutions, Prof MacIntyre says the University of Sunderland celebrates its heritage and what can be achieved.

“We proudly embrace that history – it is in our DNA to be outward facing, very engaged and be a key player: not only in the development of people but in supporting innovation, enterprise, applying research, helping businesses start and grow. Making a fundamental contribution to the economic, social, cultural life of the city and region is really important for the university. Higher Apprenticeships and Degree Apprenticeships fit the bill perfectly.”

Another good example is in the healthcare sector, where the University of Sunderland has worked with partners of many years’ standing to adapt the programmes it offers to meet the demands of the NHS and the skills needs of its employees.

“There are a lot of policy changes so we have been working with the NHS Health Trusts to develop nursing degree apprenticeships,” said Prof MacIntyre. “We have run training for paramedics in the past but now there are both Higher and Degree Apprenticeships available and we have a programme of healthcare science to deliver the laboratory scientists needed for clinical settings like hospitals as well as the wider healthcare sector.”

He says continued uncertainty of how the Institute for Apprenticeships will work when it goes live, the impact of the apprenticeship levy and how it will be applied and used means a reticence among some employers to embrace the opportunities, which has been a source of frustration.

“The way funding around apprenticeships is changing and the introduction of the levy means a lot of employers are effectively seeing it as a tax and the only way they can recover that cash is through investing in apprenticeships, but that will only pay for the training component,” said Prof MacIntyre.

“The employer still has the burden of covering the employment costs and so a lot of companies are trying to figure out the best tactics to use their pot to support developing their workforce, training their people and developing their skills needs.”

How much will be spent on the current workforce as opposed to taking on new people?

“One of our tasks is to help them understand, get employers to engage with us and figure out how Higher and Degree Apprenticeships can be part of the mechanism by which they can develop the skills they need in their business. We are ready to help them.”

Larger organisations can use their apprenticeship levy and the Government top-up to pay for tuition and professional fees of approved apprenticeship standards such as Higher and Degree Apprenticeship programmes.

For smaller employers that do not incur the apprenticeship levy, the Government pays 90%, with the remainder co-invested by the business. Further incentives are available for smaller businesses and organisations that employ younger apprentices or those who have formerly been in care or who have an Education and Health Care plan.

Prof MacIntyre concluded: “We are developing Higher and Degree Apprenticeships that allow greater choice for students in line with the needs of business and industry. The programmes integrate academic study with practical application in the workplace and can lead to a Higher Education certificate, diploma or degree and professional accreditation or membership.

“Sunderland and the nature of this university, going back over 100 years, has always been about delivering the educational needs of the people and to support the economy of the city and the region. Whether it is training teachers, pharmacists or engineers, we have a long history of delivering the region’s skills needs.

“If the employer is setting out the agenda and we can work with them to meet the standard and needs then this university is committed to it – as long as there is the demand to make it viable.”