Robin Westacott

Robin Westacott, associate professor of chemical engineering at Heriot-Watt University

Bringing together the worlds of work and study

Heriot-Watt University in Edinburgh is one of the pioneers of graduate-level apprenticeships, which allow apprentices to gain degrees while working for their employers. Robin Westacott explains the benefits of the new apprenticeships for the companies, the apprentices and the university.

When it comes to its relationships with industry, Heriot-Watt University has always had a strong reputation. From working with household names like BP, Shell and Siemens through to its knowledge transfer partnerships with Edinburgh gin-maker Spencerfield Spirit and heat battery developer SunAmp, the academic institution has an enviable record of working successfully with businesses.

Those links between academia and enterprise are poised to become even stronger this autumn when Heriot-Watt launches its first graduate-level apprenticeships (GLAs). The new scheme offers apprentices the chance to gain a bachelor’s-level degree while working for their employer.

“GLAs are another way of doing a degree, based on learning and experience in the workplace,” explains Robin Westacott, associate professor of chemical engineering at Heriot-Watt University and the lead for its GLA programmes. “They are done over the same timescale as a traditional degree but the majority of the activity and the majority of the assessment is based on tasks carried out in the workplace as part of a job.”

The first three GLAs are designed to tackle pressing skills shortages that have been identified by industry and cover: information technology (IT) management for business; IT software development; and engineering, design and manufacturing. Heriot-Watt has always been strong in all three areas and Skills Development Scotland (SDS), the Scottish Government’s skills agency, has awarded the university funding to train 25 apprentices in each programme this year.

Looking further ahead, SDS also asked universities to “horizon scan” for a range of additional subjects for 2019 start. Academics will liaise with their partners in the relevant industries to identify other skills shortages or gaps that need to be filled.

“If a company has identified that there is a skills gap within their sector then there’s also a mechanism in place for them or their industry group or trade body to feed that back to SDS,” adds Westacott. “This helps SDS to make sure that the GLA programme is helping industry to plug the most pressing shortages.”

The GLA scheme is funded through the apprenticeship levy, a tax introduced in April by the Westminster government and paid by all employers in the UK that have a wage bill of more than £3m a year. The Scottish Government has decided to use the £221m raised by the levy north of the border to support skills, training and employment, including cash for the whole family of apprenticeships, from foundation apprenticeships to modern apprenticeships and GLAs.

SDS fully funds the GLAs and so there’s no cost to the apprentice and the employer is only responsible for the apprentice’s salary. “All big employers have to pay the levy and so the GLA programme is a great way for them to get benefit for the new tax they pay,” Westacott points out. “Companies have a great opportunity to shape what they need from apprenticeships.

“The interest from employers for the GLA programme has so far been generally good. But it’s a new concept and so not everyone knows about it yet.

Westacott“Instead of applying to a university to do a course, the apprentices apply to an employer for a job and then the employer can choose to put them through the GLA programme. It’s very different to traditional students applying through the University & Colleges Admissions Service (UCAS).”

Ahead of the first year of the GLA scheme, many employers have chosen to put existing members of staff onto the programme to help them develop their skills. In subsequent years, Westacott expects that employers will put a mixture of existing employees and new recruits into the apprenticeships.

Apprentices on the programme will typically spend four days each week working for their employer and will then visit the university’s campus at Riccarton on the edge of Edinburgh for teaching, depending on the subject for their degree. During their time at university, apprentices will work alongside traditional students during some lectures and workshops, but will also have some unique classes with other apprentices.

The strength of the GLA scheme is its flexibility and how it can be tailored to suit employers and their apprentices. Some lessons will take place online and some learning will be via work-based projects. “We work with employers to understand what they need from their apprentices and we look at the skills that the apprentices already have,” explains Westacott. “We want apprentices to be able to contribute to their employers’ businesses during the programme, especially during the third and fourth years of their apprenticeship.

“We look at how participants can demonstrate that they have the knowledge and the skills required to gain their degree. For traditional students, that might be through exams or practical assessments or projects in a laboratory.

“We work with companies to figure out what tasks apprentices can undertake in the workplace to show that they’ve gained that knowledge or developed the required skills. So, we could devise a project that the participant could undertake in the workplace that would be of benefit to the employer as well as the apprentice.

“During the summer months, when the traditional students aren’t at university, there’s also the opportunity to lay on specific training for the apprentices. This doesn’t eat into the employer’s time if the apprentice is normally away from the workplace for a day a week during term time.

“If an apprentice has been with a company for some time and is now moving into a new role then that extra summer training could come in the form of masterclass on the skills they’ll need for their new post. Or, if an apprentice left school and went straight into work but now finds they need to use more maths in their job, then we can offer them revision of their maths from school or we can teach them further maths to upgrade their skills.”

Westacott doesn’t just see GLAs as a standalone programme. “A lot of work is being done on how we can tie the whole family of apprenticeships together,” he explains. “There needs to be routes for apprentices who have the talent and the desire to work their way from Foundation Apprenticeships to Modern Apprenticeships and GLAs. We need a way to tie those together.

“Also, if someone has completed a modern apprenticeship then we need a way for them to gain advanced entry into a GLA. That could mean they miss-out the first year and enter directly into second year if they have the right experience or it could mean that they receive exemption from certain subjects.

Westacott“We need to recognise prior learning and prior experience so that individuals can enter the GLA at the appropriate level. There are always elements of a degree that are flexible – such as school pupils with advanced highers gaining entry into second year for some degrees – so there needs to be that same flexibility in the GLA.”

Westacott is no stranger to the links between business and academia. Even back during his undergraduate studies in applied chemistry at Hatfield Polytechnic – now the University of Hertfordshire – he undertook a “sandwich” degree, which involved spending a year working in industry.

After completing his doctorate at the University of Reading and working at King’s College London and the University of Texas at Austin, Westacott joined Heriot-Watt University in 2001 as a lecturer in chemical engineering. One role he has undertaken is that of admissions tutor, he was responsible for analysing applications from students who had completed higher national certificates (HNCs) and higher national diplomas (HNDs) for advanced entry.

“We also worked with Forth Valley College on transition for further education students,” Westacott says. “We then brought college students to work alongside the university students, which benefited both groups.”

Thanks to the deepening relationship with Forth Valley College, Westacott and Heriot-Watt also teamed up with Ineos – the international chemicals giant that bought the oil refinery and chemicals plant at Grangemouth from BP in 2005 – to launch the “engineers of the future” programme. The first three trainees from Ineos joined the scheme in 2008 and graduated with master’s degrees from the university in 2013.

“In many ways, the engineers of the future programme was a pre-cursor to the GLAs,” says Westacott. “It demonstrated how businesses and academic institutions like colleges and universities could work together.”

Find out more about Heriot-Watt University’s graduate-level apprenticeships at or by emailing