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Universities and employer sponsored study – potential for growth

David Phoenix

Professor David Phoenix

London South Bank University (LSBU)
Student practical



High-quality, work-related education has existed for many years in the form of employer sponsored qualifications – including diplomas and degrees – at undergraduate and postgraduate level. Indeed, across UK universities, 10 per cent of students are already on employer sponsored programmes, a total of 235,000 students. This appears to be a far higher number than any published ambition for the new Higher or Degree Apprenticeships.

I believe both routes – apprenticeships and sponsored degrees – are valuable components of workforce development plans.  We need to ensure, however, that both continue to be supported if we are not to damage the good practice that currently exists and has been built up over a long period.

Employer sponsored degrees are valued by the employee-students who take them and their employers who fund them. These employee-students undertake university degree courses on a part-time basis and work for their employer the rest of the week, during which time they receive additional on-the-job training. In this way, the employee-students benefit from the combination of training, education and vocational development.

A key feature, supported by employers, is the ‘nested’ approach to a degree using HNC, HND and degree level study to provide ‘jumping-off points’ and flexibility and the programmes often lead to professional accreditation. The fact these qualifications are globally recognised is valued by the student, and employers tell us supports recruitment and staff retention. This route can also incorporate work-based modules to enable courses to be tailored to employer needs.  Furthermore, as they have quality oversight through a university, they have a relatively low administrative overhead for the company which is especially appreciated by small and micro businesses.

Not all universities will wish to offer such programmes as, to be effective, the structure has to support both the employers and students in employment. Indeed, 10 universities alone currently account for 64,000 of the sponsored places, or around a quarter of the sponsored students currently studying.

Even so, the UK higher education system contains many universities that are well placed to address the demand for professional and technical education; especially those which:

  • provide a comfortable environment for mature students;
  • offer courses that provide professional accreditation; and
  • are close to the populations and employers that require up-skilling;
  • have industry-standard facilities appropriate and accessible for regular teaching

There is scope for universities to expand delivery in this area of provision. London South Bank University (LSBU), for example, is already committed to the new higher and degree apprenticeships and we expect to be delivering around 20 programmes by the end of this year. We do not, however, believe one size fits all and we will continue to provide the Employer Sponsored Degrees which have served parts of British Industry well for many years. Indeed, we have almost 7,000 part time students on such courses.

We hope the government will recognise the benefit of both programmes and allow them to operate on a level playing field, so that employers are free to choose which is best for their business – regardless of the apprenticeship levy – and so that the capacity already available within a wide range universities, is realised.

For more on the apprenticeship levy, see the recent Universities UK blog: The apprenticeship levy is coming – what it means for universities

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