Jane Campbell is Head of Student Careers at the University of Leeds. With over 25 years experience in the industry, Jane discusses the important of degree apprenticeships rather than traditional graduate schemes.

I have been to many conferences over the last six months and on the agenda of nearly all of them has been a discussion about degree apprenticeships. Heads of University Careers Services meetings have had a similar focus with attendees eager to know what other universities are doing. Colleagues at these meetings represent a range of institutions, some of whom have been delivering degrees with industry for years and others for whom this whole area is new. Questions have ranged from what exactly are they, to will money now be channeled into apprenticeships rather than traditional graduate schemes?

All of these discussions were on my mind last week when I visited one of our students who is on a year in industry placement. A psychology undergraduate, Grace is working in a small fashion business and she immediately impressed me with her confidence, communication skills and ability to talk about her achievements on her placement so far. Her supervisor confirmed how well she was doing and the positive impact she was having on the business.

I spent some time talking to Grace about her career plans. She explained that she was interested in psychology and loved her academic study but that she was still thinking about the career path she wanted to follow. She had taken full advantage of the University’s placement offer, a key part of the Leeds Curriculum, which gives every student the option of a placement year, and had also done work experience with an educational psychologist. The latter had shown her this wasn’t the path she wanted to take, although the experience had been positive. Working in fashion, however, had given her a whole new experience, and she was loving the marketing aspect of the role.

Grace, like many other students and sixth formers I have spoken to, didn’t know what job she wanted when she was 18, she just knew she wanted to study a subject in depth and experience university life – get involved with new extracurricular activities, develop new skills and develop independence away from home. Now, informed by her university and placement experiences, she was starting to form clearer ideas. For people like Grace, a degree apprenticeship would probably not have been the right choice at 18.

In contrast, Sam, a friend’s son, is worried about taking on debt and feels he would thrive more in a work place than a university environment. He is also very clear about the career path he wants to take and has been for some time. He is ready to commit to his chosen area and wants to get started. The thought of being able to get a degree while earning a salary appeals to him and he was excited to explore this route further. He wanted to know if the degree he got would be worth the same as if he had studied full-time.

These conversations have underlined for me the belief that there is room for both the traditional degree and the degree apprenticeship.

On the face of it, degree apprenticeships offer the best of both worlds: a paid training contract and the opportunity to study for a degree, without incurring the debt which so many young people now have to carry well into their working lives. And at a time when experts are predicting a hollowing out of mid-level professional roles as a result of automation, the attractions of a degree apprenticeship might seem all the greater.

Of course, it is no small challenge to work in a demanding job and study at the same time: you only have to look at the experience of trainee nurses and doctors to get a feel for what that might be like. And there is at least as much value in the informal learning which full-time students pursue through the rich co-curriculum offered by universities. It is these aspects of the university experience which are most likely to be transforming for the student, but which may also be the most likely to be denied or simply squeezed out of scope for degree apprentices.

So the challenge for employers, working in partnership with universities, is to design a real alternative for students whose learning styles are best met through a more practice-based approach. It is most definitely not to create a pathway for those who simply cannot afford a conventional higher education. The latter would be deeply divisive and a wholly unintended consequence of the apprenticeship policy, which should promote inclusion and engage employers more actively in the education of the future workforce.

At Leeds we are looking at a range of opportunities in which we have sector-leading expertise. We are excited about building on current partnerships and forging new ones with businesses and in doing so contributing to the regional economy.