Focus on Higher level apprenticeships pathways


Industry 4.0

Building on the third industrial revolution, which used electronics and information technology to automate production, the fourth industrial revolution (Industry 4.0) is the next phase in the digitisation of the manufacturing sector. It is driven by several factors: the rise in data volumes, computational power, and connectivity; the emergence of analytics and business-intelligence capabilities; new forms of human-machine interaction such as touch interfaces and augmented reality systems; and improvements in transferring digital instructions to the physical world, such as advance robotics and 3D printing (Source: Manufacturing’s next act, McKinsey, 2015)

The emergence of Industry 4.0 is transforming the labour market. For example, 'with the digitisation of the product development process, we are seeing design, production planning, engineering, manufacturing and services merging into one unit, instead of being sequential … advanced manufacturing requires new and advanced skill sets' (Source: Advanced manufacturing: beyond the production line, CEDA, 2014, p. 5).

Apprenticeships offer a critical supply of skilled labour to industry and their enduring contribution is based on the commitment of employers and apprentices and their adaptability (Source: Laying the foundations for apprenticeship reform, NSW Business Chamber, 2016). It's the latter factor in particular, which make apprenticeships ideal for the diffusion of higher skills for emerging high tech jobs.

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Higher level apprenticeships

The higher-level apprenticeship is not a new concept. Indeed, in 1995, North Carolina in the US implemented Apprenticeships 2000, a four-year technical training partnership that offered selected high school students a guaranteed job with a partnering company in the advanced manufacturing industry. In the United Kingdom (UK), the potential benefits of opening up progression routes from work-based education to higher education were identified by the late 1990s. It was reinforced in the 2001 report of the Modern Apprenticeship Advisory Committee, Modern Apprenticeships: the way to work, which proposed that 'the national framework should refer to the opportunities for apprentices to progress into higher education, whether immediately after or even during an advanced modern apprenticeship'.

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Defining higher level apprenticeships

In the UK, degree apprenticeships are a new apprenticeship model that combines university study with on-the-job training typical of apprenticeships leading to a full Bachelors' or Masters' degree.

In Australia, the first pilots of higher-level apprenticeships suggest this model combines higher-level vocational qualifications (Diploma and Associate Degree level) and on-the-job training.

In Europe, countries like Germany, Austria, Switzerland, Denmark, France and the Netherlands that have strong vocational education and training systems, apprenticeships have largely been separate from higher education. However, as elsewhere in the world, work-based academic education is on the rise, fuelled by an increasing demand for higher level skills. The rise of work-based academic education in Austria, Germany and Switzerland provides a comparative analysis of how the institutional divide between vocational and higher education is being addressed through the development of hybrid models of advanced work-based academic education that combine vocational training with higher education.

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Recent initiatives

In 2013, the UK Government began significant reforms of its apprenticeship system based on recommendations from The Richard review of apprenticeships. With the release of the UK Government's response paper The future of apprenticeships in England: implementation plan, eight new 'trailblazer apprenticeships' were also released. Trailblazers are groups of employers taking greater ownership of apprenticeship training by designing new apprenticeship standards for occupations within their sectors. These new standards include new higher and degree apprenticeships ranging from Level 4 Foundation Degree or Higher National Diploma to Level 7 Masters' degree and postgraduate certificate and diploma, creating new vocational pathways to higher level occupations (Source: Process evaluation of the Apprenticeship Trailblazers: final report, UK Department for Business, Innovation and Skills, 2015). Degree level apprenticeships are available in a range of sectors, including Business and IT, Construction, Manufacturing, processing and logistics, Energy, and Engineering and electrical systems.

One expectation of Trailblazers, reported in Evaluation of the Apprenticeship Trailblazers: interim report, is that they will create entry and progression routes for young people, providing alternative pathways to higher level qualifications. Information about the regulation and approval of apprenticeship standards for higher-level and degree apprenticeships is set out in the Post-16 Skills Plan.

In Australia, the Victorian State Government commissioned a report to test demand for higher apprenticeship options with local industries in 2012. It found that while the current system did not necessarily preclude high achievers and motivated individuals from obtaining rewarding and fulfilling trade careers, more could be done to broaden the scope, awareness and take up of these opportunities.

To encourage broader industry adoption of all alternative methods of delivering apprenticeship training outside of the traditional trade training models, in December 2015, the Australian Government announced it would set up five industry-led pilot projects. Two of these pilots offer participants the opportunity to gain higher-level qualifications via an apprenticeship: the Ai Group’s Higher Level Applied Technology Apprenticeship, implemented in collaboration with Siemens Ltd and Swinburne University of Technology will lead to Diploma and Associate Degree in Applied Technologies qualifications upon completion. The other pilot, PwC’s Higher Level Apprenticeship and Traineeship Pilot will enable participants to complete Diploma, Advanced Diploma and Associate Degree in business, IT and professional services.

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Social mobility

Apprenticeship reform is also aimed at encouraging take-up and participation in apprenticeship opportunities. It is well established that higher educational levels lead to higher income and greater social integration. Young people from lower socioeconomic groups are more likely to undertake vocational qualifications like apprenticeships than those whose parents are already in professional occupations. Opening up access to professions through higher level apprenticeships provides an opportunity for upward social mobility. Despite evidence indicating a lack of progression of apprentices into higher education (reported in a number of studies, for example Developing Higher Apprenticeships in England; An analysis of the progression of Advanced Apprentices to higher education in England: an investigation into the purposes, intentions and opportunities facing Advanced Apprentices as perceived by learners, employers and providers of higher education; Apprenticeships, young people, and social mobility), the emergence of Industry 4.0 is set to transform the apprenticeship system, creating demand for new kinds of intermediate/technician roles and the apprenticeships required to skill them.

More research

We encourage you to explore the Apprenticeship models Podlet for further information.


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Published: March 2017