Over the last few weeks I have been doing a great deal of research and thinking in the area of higher apprenticeships. Universities UK and HEFCE published a very useful report on Degree Apprenticeships, Realising Opportunities, and the Welsh Government published their own report on Aligning the Apprenticeship Model to the Needs of the Welsh Economy. There is also considerable debate across the sector with the introduction of the apprenticeship levy at the end of this month.
The situation in Wales is, of course, very different in this area, from that in England, and I do think there are some missed opportunities. While we are clearly in conversations with the relevant people in the Welsh government, and with colleagues in the local Further Education Colleges and other suppliers, it will, undoubtedly, take a little while for the situation to become much clearer (if we ever do reach that situation). That, however, is not really what I wanted to talk about in this blog.
As a University we are already involved in the delivery of higher apprenticeships, along with foundation degrees and other forms of work based learning, both through our own activities and in close association with local Colleges. There is some excellent work being undertaken in this area but it is also clear that this is an area of growth and, given all of the wider discussions, a potential area for further growth in the future.
What is also apparent, however, is that the way in which we approach growth in this area, and the delivery of programmes with a significant element of work based learning, has to be very different from the way in which we approach growth in standard, campus based, programmes. We are working with a much wider range of partners, and often in much closer partnership arrangements. We need to adapt the delivery model significantly, both in terms of where the programmes are delivered, and when. We need a different model of student support and we need to adapt our systems for monitoring and enabling students as they progress through the programme. Finally, such programmes also demand very different skills and different time commitments, in many cases, from those who are going to be involved in the delivery of such programmes.
When I started out in my own academic career I worked extensively for what was then the Manchester University extra mural department, delivering modules on community organising and sociology to a wide cross section of the general public, including those who were working in the community work sector. When I moved to Birmingham I inherited, and continued to run, a programme aimed at the wider Muslim community that was taught in a local education centre at weekends and in the evening. I have always enjoyed this kind of work, and the really exciting student body that engages with such programmes. Many Universities withdrew from this work in the 1990s or the early years of this century. Swansea continues to maintain this tradition, however, through the work of DACE.
My point here, however, is not specifically an advocacy of community based education, but to note the very different styles of teaching involved and the different expectations on those who deliver it. As we move into a very different world, with the emphasis on work based learning and apprenticeships, we must not assume that this will be simply what we do for our current undergraduates transferred to a different space.
Apprenticeships are not the only area of growth and development where this is true. As we move into more distance learning, and other forms of blended and online learning, and as we develop the transnational educational (TNE) offer of the University, then the very same principles apply. The expectations of ‘flying faculty’ to support a programme partially delivered in China are very different from those of a standard academic contract based primarily here in Swansea. We have to recognise this difference and build it into our planning, especially if we are going to look, as we need to, at the diversification of income across the Colleges.
I am therefore putting in place mechanisms for us to undertake serious discussions about the kind of systems and structures that we need to build, or adapt, in order to support a growth in work based, distance and TNE learning. This will involve some radical thinking, not just in systems and processes, but also in areas of the University that might not be immediately apparent, such as HR and Finance. It will also need some rethinking and perhaps a shift in priorities and commitments, within the Colleges themselves. There are some real opportunities here that we do need to grasp, but we need to do this systematically, with the right structures, processes and expectations in terms of staff commitments. This is a very large agenda, but one that we need to grasp and move forward on, building on the current excellent (but largely small scale) work in all these areas across the University and embedding them as part of the way the University works on a day to day basis.