Alastair Irons

Professor Alastair Irons

The source of apprenticeships

How a North East University is collaborating with businesses on apprenticeships to deliver the higher-level skills that companies need to prosper.

Ask Professor Alastair Irons how it is that the University of Sunderland was able to so quickly mobilise its Higher and Degree Apprentices after the Government announced a £4.5m fund to develop new apprenticeships and he’ll tell you it’s: “Because we’ve been collaborating with businesses for years, aligning what and how we teach to the current and future needs of employers.”

The Academic Dean in the University of Sunderland’s Faculty of Computer Science has built strong relationships with regional business and public sector partners and is committed to helping them meet their skills needs to enable growth; and in turn increase the number of higher level jobs available to graduates.

In 2016, Sunderland was one of only 18 universities to receive a share of the £4.5m Government funding to develop its range of Higher and Degree Apprenticeships and provide much-needed skills for business and industry. And with outdated perceptions of vocational training still prevalent, the funding was also designed to strengthen the reputation of on-the-job training, by raising standards and creating more high-quality opportunities for young people and adults from all backgrounds.

Professor Irons continues: “We began with our BSc (Hons) digital and technology solutions degree apprenticeship, which we developed in collaboration with Accenture - one of the world’s leading management consulting and technology services companies - who needed more skilled staff to keep pace with their growth ambitions. Developing the degree apprenticeship programme built on our long-term relationship with the team there. And since launching, we’re now delivering the same programme to employees of national supplier Northumbrian Water and micro-business Geek Talent.

“The BSc (Hons) digital and technology solutions programme has a very strong element of work-based learning and project work, which allows the apprentices to integrate and apply their new skills and knowledge in a work environment. The degree allows staff to specialise in software engineering, gain a higher-level qualification, progress their career and still be an employee. Naturally competition is high - there’s a rigorous selection process and staff are advised how tough it’s going to be.”

Following on from this initial success, the university recently announced its extended Higher and Degree Apprenticeships programme, which includes a new BA (Hons) management and leadership practice, chartered manager programme that will help businesses to improve the leadership and management skills of their workforce.

During an event in January 2017, attended by HRH The Duke of York, the University shared the benefits to employers of building higher-level skills. Apprentices attend university while also being employed full time. The result is staff trained to degree-level in specific core skills, who gain the technical knowledge and behaviours that employers need to succeed.

A history of industry collaboration

With an established track record for collaborating with businesses, the University of Sunderland is ideally placed to be one of the first to market with higher and degree apprenticeships. In fact, the very first ‘Sandwich’ Degree in the UK was developed in the 1950s in Sunderland, in Engineering, and what is now the University has been at the forefront of educating pharmacists for 100 years.

And the North East University, which also has a campus in London and recently opened another in Hong Kong, has a long and proud history of working with business and industry to support them in a range of ways. By adapting courses to the needs of industry it has been developing graduates with the career-ready skills, confidence and contacts to make them stand out to employers for many years - that’s why 94% of its graduates are in work or further study within six months of graduating.

With the Government’s Apprenticeship Levy due to start in April 2017, now is definitely the time for employers to think about taking on apprentices. There are different ways for the employer to fund the costs of Higher and Degree Apprenticeships, which may include levies already paid by the employer to Government, or specific funding opportunities. 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 – it’s worth talking to higher-level training providers such as the University of Sunderland, about the options, and opportunities.