Apprenticeship Week 2017: work-based pathways

Written by Damien Yeates and Professor Richard A Williams on 6 March 2017 in Feature

SDS Chief Executive Damien Yeates talks to Heriot-Watt University Principal Professor Richard A Williams OBE about the potential of work-based learning and new apprenticeships

Principal Professor Richard A Williams​ - Heriot-Watt University 

Damien Yeates: Across Scotland, there are great ambitions for the future of skills development aligned to meeting industry needs through work-based learning and apprenticeships. Why is Heriot-Watt getting involved in Graduate Level Apprenticeships?

Professor Williams: Graduate Level Apprenticeships (GLAs) offer an exciting new approach to skills development. Providing individuals with the opportunity to increase their professional skills and enhance their career prospects while earning and studying to degree level, offers a highly efficient and effective way to meet the needs of industry.

At Heriot-Watt University, we have a long heritage of working closely with industry and transferring this knowledge into social and economic impact. As a world-leading educational institution, we are keenly aware of the skills needed in various sectors of the Scottish economy.

We believe GLAs offer an important new way to help meet those needs in a manner that is consistent with our mission of widening access to our professional and vocational qualifications. GLAs will give us the opportunity to work with some of Scotland’s leading organisations to combine academic knowledge with skills development in the workplace to the benefit of the Scottish economy.  Given our broad international base, students will also gain an understanding of the latest global frontiers in industrial practice in their chosen specialist area. 


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How do you see Graduate Level Apprenticeships enriching and building upon our existing skills and education systems?

GLAs are not just about day release from work to come to university, or distance learning in the evenings after work. They are about developing new practices of work-based learning that integrate academic thinking with learning, skills and knowledge that is developed through effective practice in the workplace. New curriculums and pedagogies will be built. These are interesting concepts that will, over time, enrich and extend our educational models. GLAs also complete the ‘apprenticeship family’ in a way that sets out a clear pathway through vocational and work-based education to the same degree outcome as the conventional route through university.

In Germany, Switzerland and many other countries where investment in work-based pathways is high, youth unemployment is low. What can we learn from these examples?

These countries have successful economies from which we should seek to learn, whilst also recognising how distinct they are from the Scottish economy. Increased engagement between the education sector and employers, facilitated where necessary by government, is clearly a priority. Apprenticeships in whatever form are attractive as they provide the skills companies need and, for the individual, act as a stepping stone into the labour market.

This is particularly key when addressing youth unemployment. Several EU member states have shaped policies that make vocational education and training qualifications attractive and of a high quality, yet only one in 10 enterprises across Europe currently trains apprentices. To actively address youth unemployment, we need to address this disparity first and encourage industry to invest in more apprenticeships as a way of bringing new talent into the workforce and upskilling existing personnel.  

Here in the UK and Scotland, we continue to place great emphasis on the prestige of a university degree, yet recent research from the CIPD shows that half of all graduates are leaving university to work in a non-graduate position whilst burdened with significant debt. GLAs are opening up another option for professionals to access a high-quality education and develop desirable and relevant skills without pausing their careers. 

Should the education system be more closely aligned with industry and, if so, how do we overcome the barriers?

While national initiatives to more closely align education with industry are growing, there still exists barriers at a local level. It is essential that local government, schools, higher education and industry invest and collaborate to increase skills that are in demand in local economies as well as looking at the national picture. Curriculum collaboration is key as well as promoting vocational routes through higher education. At Heriot-Watt University, we have a long heritage of translating impactful research into professionally-oriented education which is why we are committed to delivering a large cohort of GLAs.

 There is a longstanding debate about the value of academic and work-based learning. Is such a distinction still relevant, and if it exists, how can Graduate Level Apprenticeships bridge the gap?

Over the last 30 years, the engagement of higher education with the development of workplace skills has grown significantly and how it is facilitated in educational institutes is demonstrated by its distinct pedagogies. Drawing such a distinction today is an outdated concept. What we must ensure in our approach to work-based learning is that we put quality at its core.

For it to be effective and to achieve increased esteem, the experience and outcomes for the student and employer must be central to its delivery. At Heriot-Watt University, we have placed quality and relevance at the heart of our GLA development plans. 

Increasingly, research shows that work-based learning widens access to higher education, increases adult participation and develops the capabilities and skills sets of organisations and individuals. What GLAs will do is bridge the gap for those students who would not otherwise have considered going to university, whether that is because of financial reasons, their availability to study or a lack of opportunity on leaving school.   

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