Diary of a Degree Apprentice: Part 1

Our CEO, Dr Diana Beech, writes for the London Higher blog about her experiences during her first term as a degree apprentice. 

For the past four months, I haven’t just been busy running London Higher, but I’ve also been busy being a student again. In September this year, with the endorsement of the Board, I enrolled on a Level 7 Degree Apprenticeship at City, University of London, where I’m studying with approximately 40 other senior leaders from across the public and private sectors for a dual qualification in leadership and management.

As a higher education policy professional, I am well aware of the negative reaction this may receive in some circles, with yet another experienced manager tapping into the apprenticeship levy and exacerbating the problem of funds not being used at lower levels for younger learners. But this view is far too simplistic. First, any moves to restrict access to the levy for executive education will not automatically increase demand for apprenticeships for school or college leavers (and I am naturally pleased we avoided any restrictions on Level 7 Degree Apprenticeships in this year’s Autumn Statement). Second, it is wrong to assume that more experienced employees are not in need of upskilling through high-quality training and qualifications, especially when we know that people today change careers multiple times throughout their working lives; a process intensified by the pace of technological change and recent workforce disruption following the global Covid-19 pandemic. Moreover, objecting to higher level apprenticeship routes runs counter to the government’s supposed commitment to creating a culture of lifelong learning.

As someone who has progressed in my policy career through a series of fixed-term appointments and precarious employment terms, I did not get much of a chance for receiving in-work training and development. Becoming a first-time CEO with overall responsibility for a team of employees and the company’s finances, it is not unreasonable that I – and others like me – receive a strong grounding in the business and management skills that are essential for me to do my job well and keep my company running efficiently. After all, the returns for the Treasury will be all the greater if I keep people employed and generate more business and, over time, this will far outweigh the total funds drawn down from the levy. 

Looking across the cohort of peers on my course, too, it is clear that access to the levy is essential, not only for small charities like mine which would simply not have the resource to fund this high-quality training without levy support, but also for upskilling leaders across the NHS and other vital public services. If we are serious about delivering on the NHS workforce plan and equipping our hospitals, GP surgeries and other healthcare centres with experienced managers who are able to navigate increasing digitalization and disruption to traditional ways of working, then it would be folly to cut off this popular training route at a time when it is most needed. 

Contrary to what critics may say, Level 7 Degree Apprenticeships are not an easy way to a Master’s level qualification. With the prerequisite for entry being a current practicing senior leader with several years of management experience, then the individuals signing up have to be some of the most dedicated and hard-working professionals in the UK workforce. This, in itself, raises the chances of earlier and higher returns from the levy investment because Level 7 Degree Apprentices are continually applying their learning to their workplaces, leading to increasingly more profitable businesses and more satisfied employees. The unique nature of the courses, bringing together people from different sectors and industries, also creates an unrivalled learning environment where students are continually inspired by others and can learn from their industries and experiences. 

Although I am only approaching the end of my first term on a two-year course, I have already benefited from the training immensely and have gained the confidence to implement changes which I’m excited to unveil to London Higher members in the New Year in time for our 25th anniversary year! As I progress through my Degree Apprenticeship, I want to be open with colleagues in the higher education sector about my experiences, as one of the few sector leaders (at least to my knowledge) with real lived experience of this important study route, so expect more diary entries as the year progresses. 

It is important for our sector that we get Level 7 Degree Apprenticeship provision right, and it is important – as a Degree Apprentice – that I make policymakers aware of the positive difference that this opportunity is making to my career as well as those of others.