Sponsored feature, words by Fay Millar


Wouldn’t it be nice if you could get the degree you have always dreamed of but without any student debt? That idea may seem like a dream but it can be a reality if you study for a degree apprenticeship.


Apprenticeships once had a reputation for delivering lower level skills - something you did if you weren’t good enough to go to uni – but times have most definitely changed and increasingly employers and universities are partnering up to offer degree and higher apprenticeships which allow you to get the qualifications you need whilst working in your chosen profession or industry at the same time. Your employer and the government pay your university fees, you receive a salary while you learn and your employers gains a valuable member of staff with the practical skills and academic potential needed to grow their business.


Degree and higher apprenticeships are not an easy option though – you will be working for at least 30 hours each week and studying at the same time and competition to get one is tough - you have to be bright, self-motivated, hardworking and dedicated.

There also aren’t an infinite number of degree apprenticeships available currently but the popularity of them is growing enormously and new courses are becoming available all the time. This, coupled with the government’s Apprenticeship Levy, which will require all large employers to pay into a pot for apprenticeship funding, means you can expect to see a lot more of them in a diverse range of subjects in future.


Staffordshire University and Aston University are both leading the way with degree apprenticeships in the UK and they have helped put together this guide, giving you all the information you need.


What is a degree apprenticeship?


Apprenticeships can provide lots of different types of qualifications, but degree apprenticeships allow you to study for a full bachelor’s or master’s degree at the same time as working for an employer and earning a salary. A higher apprenticeship doesn’t lead to a full degree but does allow you to gain extremely valuable qualifications such as Level 4 NVQs. In either case, the employer will sponsor you and release you to study at a partnering university, sometimes once a week, other times for blocks of time depending on how it is structured.


At the end of your apprenticeship, you will have a degree or higher level qualification just the same as you would have if you took the traditional university route and be eligible to graduate with other students from the university. But you will also have a lot of hands-on experience and very likely, a continuing job with the employer you have been working with – and you may also have earned yourself promotion.

Unlike traditional degrees, the range degree of apprenticeships available is not as great though numbers are growing as the option becomes increasingly popular and you can find degree apprenticeships in everything from management, manufacturing and digital technology solutions to construction, software engineering and even the law, training to become a solicitor.

Kyle Campbell, lead for communications at Aston University, which offers apprenticeships in Digital Technology and Business Management, says: “We have a long history of working closely with employers at Aston, to give our students the skills to secure graduate-level employment. Aston was one of the eight pilot universities to introduce degree apprenticeships in 2014. Since then, there has definitely been a swell of interest in apprenticeships and employers are looking to work with universities to create degree apprenticeships. Employers are looking for people with strong workplace skills and students are becoming more concerned with employability after university, both of which apprenticeships can provide.”



Staffordshire University’s Sarah Tudor, Head of Skills and Work Based Learning, adds: “It’s a win win situation and a very valuable alternative to a traditional degree. It’s pitched at the same level as university but you earn as you learn so you don’t have to worry about debt, plus your university fees are paid for.


“The likelihood is you will continue in that line of work once qualified and as you have already been working in your chosen career you will have a head start on everyone else who has gone straight to university.”



How do I research the options?


You can visit the university websites themselves or get in touch with particular employers to see if they offer degree apprenticeships. Staffordshire, for example, works with Vodafone, Perkins and the NHS, and Aston works with employers such as Capgemini, a global technology consultancy, with more apprenticeships coming with a range of other companies.


The government also has http://www.gov.uk/apply-apprenticeship which allows you to sign up for free and search for apprenticeships throughout the country, based on the distance from you and the subject you're interested in.



How do I choose one?


Choosing an apprenticeship that suits you is really down to personal choice as much as choosing a traditional degree is. You need to look at the industry you wish to work in and the type of work you want to do then see if there are any apprenticeships available in that area.


Tudor says: “If you enjoy a more hands-on approach combined with your academic study, then a degree apprenticeship can be a great choice.”


Campbell adds: “Degree apprenticeships are quite tough to get, but that makes sense, because they are a pretty good deal. You are applying for a job that is also going to give you an education and experience. Something like that is always going to have steep competition.


“A traditional three-year university degree is probably a more familiar academic environment, whereas a degree apprenticeship means you are going straight into the world of work a few years earlier than your contemporaries and you have to ask yourself if you are ready for that.”



How do I apply?


Most degree or higher apprenticeships are listed on the government website and you apply directly through the employer who is offering them. Just as you would when applying for a job, you will go through a rigorous selection process where you will be interviewed and expected to discuss your strengths, your passion for the subject or industry, any relevant experience you may have and why you would be suitable for a degree apprenticeship programme. You may also have to sit aptitude tests.


Campbell says: “Larger companies will have structured application processes, smaller ones may simply require you get in touch and write to them. This may change and become more standardised as apprenticeships increase in popularity. However, visiting the government website is an excellent place to begin your search.”


Tudor says: “If you are already employed, talk to your existing employer about the potential to become their degree apprentice. You will need to have a real job in the occupation linked to your apprenticeship and your employer’s support to become a degree apprentice”.


Unlike university applications, apprenticeships are not all advertised in September and you will need to check the website regularly to see what jobs are available throughout the year.

What will the experience be like?


Training for a degree apprenticeship is likely to be hard work but ultimately rewarding. Remember you will be studying alongside your day job so you have to be prepared to put in the work, be self-motivating and enthusiastic.

It also offers you a fair degree of flexibility fitting your studies around your full-time job.

Tudor says: “Students can expect to have a university experience which provides them with the opportunity to learn about the academic aspects of their subject with the additional opportunity to embed the learning immediately into practice.”
James Gee, an apprentice with Capgemini and Aston, studying progression and technical knowledge, says: “In five years I have come a long way, from a shy 18 year old to a 23 year old consultant. I have worked on projects in five cities, gained experience in a wealth of technologies, and had the satisfaction of delivering multiple successful projects for clients.”

Former Aston Student Vanessa Liu says: “I definitely enjoyed working away from home, as until then I had never been away for more than a couple of weeks (for a holiday). Living in London on my own gave me an insight into real working life, as opposed to being a student. I was not too sure what to expect at first as this was the first project I had been assigned to since starting at Capgemini. I already knew some other people on the project as I trained with them in Telford, but being in London was a whole new experience.”



What is a degree apprenticeship like compared to a traditional degree?


In some respects, a degree apprenticeship is not dissimilar to a traditional degree – though you will still be studying for slightly longer – between three and a half and five years - you will still graduate with a bachelor’s or master’s in your chosen subject if you are doing a degree apprenticeship. If you are taking a higher apprenticeship you will receive such as a Level 4 NVQ.


The first obvious difference is the cost. With a traditional degree you will be expected to pay fees of around £9,000 a year plus you have living costs to consider and unless you take on part-time work while you’re there you won’t be earning.

With an apprenticeship degree the cost of the degree is covered by your employer and the government, plus you are earning a salary at the same time which means you will finish hopefully, with little or no debt.

An apprenticeship degree also increases your employability post-university because you already have valuable work experience and employment history under your belt. You will have developed transferable soft skills such as leadership, team working and communication, which are important to employers, as well as expertise in your chose field.

Tudor says: “With a traditional degree you might choose it based on the career you want to go into and at the end of that degree you may find there is a period of time where you are searching for a job in your chosen career and have to look at an alternative at least for a while.


“With a higher or degree apprenticeship you can fast-track your careers because you have already been employed and it is directly related to your future.”



However, you won’t get the traditional campus experience as a degree apprentice because you will be working full-time and whilst your friends are making the most of the uni social life you may find you can’t be so frivolous.


Tudor adds: “Students have access to the campus and all facilities whilst they are studying at Staffordshire although they are unlikely to have the same experience as students on a full time degree.”



What are my job prospects?



Your job prospects post-university are excellent because you will already have been working in industry and gained valuable work experience.

According to the National Apprenticeship Service 90% of apprentices remain in employment once they have finished studying or go on to find a job in the same or related field with another employer. If you have completed a degree apprenticeship there is a very high chance you will remain with your employer so they see a return on their investment and you continue to be a valuable and productive member of staff.