Degree apprenticeships within universities and the role of business schools


By Jill Shepherd, Lead on Work-Based Learning in Degree Apprenticeships and Head of Masters Programme, BPP Business School

An intellectual role for business schools?

As reported by Chris Havergal, in the Times Higher Education’s post White paper interview with Jo Johnson, degree apprenticeships represent a way of accommodating ‘unmet learner needs’. What unmet learner needs might these be? Universities traditionally offer work-based learning (WBL) in the form of internships, work placements and indirectly through innovative experiential learning: ‘know how’ as well as ‘know about’, as Martin Binks of Nottingham University Business School previously explored for Chartered ABS. Some students and parents might consider, or be persuaded, that current undergraduate approaches are less enjoyable and/or effective compared to the learning within the workplace of degree apprenticeships. Another key characteristic of degree apprenticeships is the ability to earn while you learn. These lower or zero student debt scenarios harbor social mobility potential, which in turn should increase UK productivity. Thus the market for degree apprenticeships within universities appears to be there for the taking and ethically attractive. What intellectual role can business schools play in making degree apprenticeships work for students, employers and the country?

Internal changes and challenges

Even before we consider such a role, managing a university that offers degree apprenticeships has administrative consequences. Principally there is the need to work with the Skills Funding Agency (SFA) to provide ILRs (Individual Learner Records) and evidence of student progress for funding purposes. The SFA thus becomes a stakeholder that universities have yet to work with. Whereas current, experienced apprenticeship providers already have such systems up and running. The Institute of Apprenticeships, the new improved Digital Apprenticeship Service, as well as consideration of the related concerns of the CBI, should help in managing change.

Traditional apprenticeship providers are also used to working with employers. They hire skills coaches or teams of work-based learning specialists to ensure continual engagement, progress and the alignment of student apprentices with employer needs. Less change oriented university academics might find this new job role uncomfortable. Where might the management of such skills coaches/work-based learning specialists optimally fit within a university organisational structure? The answer might require some organisational development of the type business school professors provide to their own Executive Education clients.

Any academics knowledgeable about WBL are likely to become more employable. Talent retention and acquisition of such staff able to create curriculum that can be used, not when the student leaves university but in the moment will create degree apprenticeships that deliver. Apprenticeships are only awarded when standards are met. In management those standards involve knowledge, skills and behaviours that might be achievable in different guises at levels 4, 5 and 6, given the multi-perspective nature of business. Such challenges bring modern WBL central to curriculum design and delivery. Business schools with experience working with undergraduate part-time students are likely to have a competence advantage.

The role universities and business schools can play

Fundamental to modern WBL, is the challenge of theory into practice. Here business schools can use their own research to make theory work for student apprentices. All degree apprenticeships could have a business angle. Tranfield and Starkey’s seminal work on Type 1 and Type 2 research is foundational (1998). The concepts of practical (practitioner) and scientific (researcher) rationality (2011) created by Sandberg and Tsoukas are relevant too. Degree apprentices work in a practical world of multiple, rather than single or controlled, variables. Ramsey’s idea (2011) of using theory in a provocative way gives students permission to consider theory as ideas, rather than any absolute truth they have to adhere to rigorously; promoting learning in action. Crossan et al’s work on character (2013) provides a beyond-just-knowledge concept of learning to work ethically and aligned to self-awareness. Equally Seidl’s and Whittington’s (2014) distinction between flat (specific to a company) or tall (highly generalisable to all) theory could be easily translated into something of worth to a student trying to grapple with sustainable competitive advantage in their organisation. Using research on the process of reflective learning, such as that which helps students notice when the potential for WBL learning is greatest (Hay and Damra-Fredericks 2016) makes learning faster and enhances confidence.

Universities, as Professional Service Firms, (interestingly the subject of a new research field) can be disruptive in terms of the generation of new practices and new institutional frameworks (Empson et al, 2015). How disruptive a role business schools will play, will depend on their ability to practise what they research, to the degree apprentices they care for.

Prior to joining BPP Business School, Jill Shepherd ( was a research active academic at Beedie Business School, Simon Fraser University, Strathclyde Graduate Business School and Cranfield School of Management, and an Associate Lecturer at the Open University.

Chartered ABS are holding an Apprenticeships workshop in Manchester on 4 July in which the focus will be on how to effectively deliver degree apprenticeships.