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What we can learn from degree apprenticeships and work-integrated learning

Elizabeth Miller, Deputy Dean at Pearson College Iro Konstantinou, Head of Research and Impact  at Pearson College

The British government’s introduction of degree apprenticeships (DAs) in 2015 marked a turning point in the delivery of both higher and vocational education in England. When announcing the roll-out of DAs in March 2015, the government’s press release explained, ‘They will involve a degree as an integral part of the apprenticeship, co-designed by employers to make sure it is relevant for the skills industry is looking for’ (BIS et al, 2015). We argue that higher education institutions (HEIs) can learn a great deal from the ways in which DAs are taught, and that a work-integrated learning (WIL) approach that is embedded in mainstream higher education provision can help reduce the skills gap.#

‘Higher education institutions can learn a great deal from how degree apprenticeships are taught: a work-integrated learning approach embedded in mainstream HE provision could help reduce the skills gap.’

There are some examples in the UK and abroad of the establishment of distinct frameworks that have aimed to develop students’ skills through WIL modules. Freudenberg, Brimble and Cameron (2011) created a professional development programme that developed generic skills. Jackson and Chapman (2012) have also compiled a list of skills which they have mapped against associated behaviours required from students. At Pearson Business School we have created our own approach to developing these skills in students and ensuring best practice in WIL. Our skills development framework draws from Billet (2011), who suggests that for successful integration there needs to be adequate preparation prior to the practice-based activities; support during the placement; and opportunities for reflection after the activities. This reflective process, which is deemed vital for the success of WIL, may not develop the required skills as such, but might help students identify their strengths and weaknesses, and encourage improvement (Boud, 2000).

Since we introduced our skills framework and embedded it within our assessment processes, we have been collecting qualitative data to map students’ perceptions and reflections in how they develop their skills and how WIL modules can enhance the process. Our data from interviews and focus groups with undergraduate degree apprentices who study on these modules shows that they find the process of reflecting on skills beneficial both to their studies and their professional development. Students have commented on the ability to reflect on their work and evaluate their arguments. They described the confidence that can be required to change your mind if you realise that an idea might not work. Interestingly, participants also saw the broader picture of integrated skills development at university and their link to, and use in, the workplace.

The process of reflecting on their skills and how they can be applied to their studies and workplace is a process that can empower students and make them better placed to talk about skills and their practical application in various contexts. As our participants mentioned, this is not something that is usually done at university, but it can be beneficial.

The current HE landscape is changing, with increased pressure on HEIs to close the skills gap. In this context, there are practical steps HEIs can adopt to improve the skills and graduate outcomes of their students. Our evidence suggests that a reflective approach to developing skills (particularly communication, leadership, the ability to give and respond to feedback, and self, time and project management) can contribute towards closing the skills gap and reduce the mismatch between the skills that universities develop and those that employers want. Degree provision could move towards a model that borrows from the work-integrated learning of DAs and looks to develop skills in students which can help them with their path beyond university.


Billet, S. (2011). Curriculum and pedagogical bases for effectively integrating practice-based experiences. Strawberry Hills, NSW: Australian Learning and Teaching Council (ALTC).

Boud, D. (2000). Sustainable assessment: Rethinking assessment for the learning society. Studies in Continuing Education, 22(2), 151–167.

Department for Business, Innovation & Skills [BIS], Prime Minister’s Office, 10 Downing Street, Rt Hon Dr Vince Cable, & Rt Hon David Cameron. (2015, March 12). Government rolls-out flagship degree apprenticeships. [Press release]. Retrieved from

Freudenberg, B., Brimble, M., Cameron, C. (2011). WIL and generic skill development: The development of business students’ generic skills through work-integrated learning. Asia-Pacific Journal of Cooperative Education, 12(2), 79–93.

Jackson, D., & E. Chapman. (2012). Non-technical competencies in undergraduate business degree programmes: Australian and UK perspectives. Studies in Higher Education, 37(5), 541–567.

Moore, T. & Morton, J. (2017). The myth of job readiness? Written communication, employability, and the ‘skills gap’ in higher education. Studies in Higher Education, 42(3), 591–609.

O’Leary, S. (2017). Graduates’ experiences of, and attitudes towards, the inclusion of employability-related support in undergraduate degree programmes: Trends and variations by subject discipline and gender. Journal of Education & Work, 30(1), 84–105.