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Degree Apprenticeships

Joining the profession

08:30 Monday, 11 October 2021

UK Cyber Security Council

In September 2021 we wrote about Degree Apprenticeships (DAs), in the context of the National Cyber Security Centre (NCSC) having granted certification to two such programmes. On the face of it the logic appears sound; as we said at the time: “The motivation is to graduate with a Bachelor’s or Master’s degree but with a level of real-world hands-on experience that is simply not available to students on a conventional degree programme”. But is that strictly true, or have the universities (in this case Edinburgh Napier University and the University of the West of England) simply invented a hybrid monster that is neither one thing nor the other?

The key word in our comment about DAs is “experience”: job advertisements invariably use the “E” word. Sometimes it is thrown in illogically and without thought, such as the case in 2017 where a job ad demanded eight years’ experience with the Swift programming language even though it had only existed for three years (since 2014) at the time. Most of the time, though, experience is demanded because it has massive value.

This shouldn’t be a surprise, of course. Everyone knows that if you encounter a problem and you’ve been working in that subject area for a few years, there will be something in your memory that relates in some way and helps solve the issue. Hence employers are really keen to take on people who have experience as well as the necessary qualifications. In fact in many cases one sees people with few or no relevant formal qualifications who nonetheless shine simply through the years of experience they have under their belt.

For the younger generation, experience is by definition limited or even non-existent. If you’re fresh out of university then, unless you’ve found a job in the uni holidays, you’ll have no relevant experience to tell prospective employers about. Take on a DA course, though, and you’ll spend as much time working and building experience as you will spend studying (for example, in the UWE course students spend one week a month – two in June and September – studying and the rest working).

But is this really much different from how the world already works? There have always been scholarship and sponsorship schemes, after all. Many employers fund degree courses for existing employees, but there have also been many schemes through time where a company has contributed financially to a student’s learning and employed them during the university holidays. Sandwich degrees are just one example of this. This correspondent was part of one of the latter schemes, as it happens – the financial injection was welcome as was the weekly wage packet during the vacations, and my first employer as a graduate (not the sponsoring organisation, incidentally) was very clear that the hands-on experience I’d gained had given me the edge over other the other similarly-qualified candidates.

The concept behind the DA is not new, but what it does bring for the first time is integration. It’s not just a student working with both a university and an employer, but instead is all three parties working together in a much more closely connected way. The NCSC has only certified two programmes so far, but before long we’ll definitely see more.