Dr John Lanham is Assistant Vice Chancellor and Director Strategic Regional Partnerships at UWE and a Board Member of the University Vocational Awards Council (UVAC)

The University of the West of England (UWE) has an extensive portfolio of “collaborative provision” through which we work with a range of partners to deliver our degrees at locations away from the university.

Some are far away - Hong Kong, Malaysia, Vietnam, others are regional further education colleges. Our collaborative programmes provide easy and local access for learners to degree level programmes and UWE supports over 1,000 leaners on “HE in FE” programmes regionally.

Collaborative delivery offers clear benefits for learners who have local access to higher level and degree programmes which are designed so that they provide structured progression pathways to further study or higher qualifications with either the collaborative partner or UWE. An additional beneficiary is also the education partner we are working with - not just financially through increased student numbers - but through the development of college staff to assist them in delivering HE programmes in their local context.

Some university colleagues have articulated concerns about the compete-collaborate tension - that by working in partnership we are equipping our partners to become our competitors. I ask them to look to industry. I used to teach manufacturing/manufacturing systems engineering where the benefits of strong supply chain relationships are well understood and developed - for clear mutual benefit.

So, it was through this collaborative environment that I got involved in the apprenticeship reforms and have worked to guide my university through the dynamic and evolving landscape that is apprenticeship delivery in England. A key positive feature and opportunity of the policy reform was the extension of apprenticeship opportunities up to level 7 but particularly in the introduction of degree apprenticeships.

Through our existing collaborations in the south west region we could provide learners and employers integrated suites of apprenticeships - starting in the colleges and progressing through to degree apprenticeships at the university. Given the stated policy objectives of social mobility and productivity, by building on our existing college partners, we could swiftly respond to the two-key policy intentions.

With support from HEFCE’s Degree Apprenticeship Development Fund we set up a project with four of our regional college partners in 2016 and by September 2017 launched a portfolio of four new degree apprenticeship programmes with the colleges that reflected local employer demand. There was extensive employer consultation and these programmes were not the minimalist rebadging that has been claimed by recent reports - but genuine engagement with the principles of the apprenticeship reforms.

The university brought extensive experience of part-time study at degree level - the colleges brought their experience of apprenticeships. The programmes launched last September with ~ 80/90 learners across the suite of programmes and the apprentice demographics confirm we are continuing to address the social mobility and upskilling agenda at the heart of the apprenticeship reforms.

Given the very successful collaborations with regional colleges it is disappointing and frustrating to hear others making comments that I consider to be unnecessarily divisive: that degree apprenticeships and higher level apprenticeship programmes will benefit affluent youngsters at the expense of others; that enabling a mature learner trying to re-enter the workplace after a break or progress in and through work is not increasing social mobility and that there should be a focus on lower level apprenticeships despite intelligence, from OECD and others, that higher skills are essential for the national productivity agenda.

The real issue surely is that learners, industry and the economy needs all of these - and the apprenticeships policy reforms can offer the way to achieve this? If partisan, sectorial stratification is artificially created to protect interest groups I fear it serves none of us in the long run. The national landscape is uncertain and an excellent policy is being undermined through an implementation that is fraught with problems.

Across the spectrum of apprenticeship providers, we need to work together and increasingly collaboratively - to highlight the gaps that we see in the delivery mechanisms and systems - and present a united narrative to those leading and managing the reforms. If we do not then a once in a generation opportunity to set aside the notion of a vocational and academic divide, a schism that has long divided our nation, will be lost.

Many of the nation’s favourite sports are team based games - teams require a mix of roles, skills and sizes – take rugby for example! Together, supporting each other, each bringing a specific contribution and skill - 15 people of a range of sizes and shapes can be a very effective team.

To deliver the apprenticeship ambition the government have set, that industry needs and providers want to support - across all sectors and all level of skill - we need to work together and not artificially create barriers and tensions.

The real competition, given the wider national challenges post-Brexit, are very real and we need to work together to equip our economy and not seek to drive wedges between those apprenticeship providers that can and need to work together.

Dr John Lanham is Assistant Vice Chancellor and Director Strategic Regional Partnerships at UWE and a Board Member of the University Vocational Awards Council (UVAC)

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