Establishing apprenticeship systems as an HEI – insights from Sheffield Hallam University

A blog post from our consultancy partners at SDN

For many HEIs considering the delivery of Higher and Degree Apprenticeships, the apprenticeship sector can be difficult to navigate. Perhaps most challenging is the need to set up new systems, processes and funding mechanisms, that meet the requirements of the Education and Skills Funding Agency (ESFA) and employers.

Sheffield Hallam University have been quick to start offering Higher and Degree Apprenticeships, and have spent time working through some of the challenges that many HEIs are now facing.

As part of a joint workshop with UVAC, we spoke with Sheffield Hallam about their journey in setting up apprenticeship systems and processes, and some of the lessons they have learnt along the way.

Could you walk us through the new systems and processes you’ve set up throughout the apprentice journey and how these have integrated (or sat alongside) your HE systems?

“Our starting point was to establish systems that sat alongside our current HE systems where possible, whilst also being compliant with the Education and Skills Funding Agency (ESFA).

If we receive an application from an individual to join a Higher or Degree Apprenticeship programme, we first check academic eligibility, before conducting eligibility checks with the apprentice and employer to confirm funding. We then make an initial offer, sending the apprentice and employer an apprentice agreement, commitment statement, learner record form and what we call the ‘sponsorship agreement’ (which becomes the contract with the employer). We do not formally enrol the apprentice until all paperwork has been completed and signatures in place, to ensure ESFA requirements are met.

Once enrolled, we then agree the process for invoicing and drawing down payments with the employer, alongside registration on the ILR system. We also discuss the training and mentoring responsibilities with the employer.”

How have you gone about setting this up?

“Our University set up a central directorate (Directorate of Education Employee Partnerships) that has taken a lead role in developing the right partnerships and functions to deliver Higher and Degree Apprenticeships. When we started eighteen months ago, it was critical to engage and brief teams right across the University including admissions, marketing, legal services, faculty colleagues, professional services colleagues, registry services, etc. We set up a dedicated Operations Group with colleagues from across the University, to look at the ESFA funding rules and our current processes, to then map how apprenticeship systems could work alongside our HE processes. We are currently reviewing this to reflect funding changes post-May and we have a number of Tasks and Finish Groups set up to make the changes required.”

How much time and resource has it taken to establish these new systems and make sure they are working effectively?

“We were one of the first Universities to offer Higher and Degree Apprenticeships so it has taken significant time to iron out the full process – but it has been time well spent to make sure we understand ESFA requirements and are fully compliant. It has been essential to build a good relationship with our provider manager at the ESFA. We had a lot of questions about the funding rules and what did / didn’t meet requirements, so the advice and guidance they gave us was key in helping us to initially set up our processes, as well as understanding each other’s language.

Managing the ILR system and returns is an area we are still battling with. It’s a very technical system, so initially we subcontracted the management of our data and ILR returns to another organisation. This had its advantages to help get us started, but at the same time it was important longer-term to manage our own data and have full control. We brought this in-house ten months ago, using the ESFA’s ILR tool. Although this has been complex, it has given us a real understanding of the funding mechanisms and how it works. We’re now working through the government’s new digital Apprenticeship Service system to see how this works for the employer and how we manage employer contributions.”

From a strategic point of view, would you say the investment to establishing systems, and the broader preparation needed to deliver Higher and Degree Apprenticeships, has been worth it?

“Yes, absolutely. There are of course national drivers – the government’s apprenticeship 2020 target and the introduction of the levy – that opens up opportunities for us as a University. There were also economic drivers too at a regional level, aligned with LEP and Sheffield City Region priorities. Achievement past Level 3 is under the national average in our region, so we have worked closely with FE Colleges to help map out clear progression pathways, from Level 2 right up to Level 7. Higher and Degree Apprenticeships has also been a good opportunity for us to reignite some of the relationships we have with employers and industry.”

If you were to advise another HEI, who is about to start out on the same journey, what key lessons would you share and what pitfalls would you suggest they avoid?

  1. “It has been absolutely critical to have senior management buy-in right from the start (in our case, at Vice Chancellor level). You will need to consider where Higher and Degree Apprenticeships sits within the broader strategy for the University. This will help to give you the mandate needed to drive plans forward.”
  1. “Get everyone from across the University involved from the start – communication is really important. We held breakfast meetings and set up internal briefings – the more departments, faculties and teams understand, the easier it is to set up the university-wide systems and processes needed to deliver Higher and Degree Apprenticeships.”
  1. “When we conducted the initial briefings, we found particular staff were really enthusiastic about the new offer, and so we were able to appoint them as ‘champions’. This helped to create a ripple effect, bringing all teams on-side and supporting communication right across the University.”

Our thanks go to Cat Wasnidge (Partnership Operations Manager) and Mark Rayner (Degree Apprenticeship Development Manager) from Sheffield Hallam University for their time and willingness to share their experience.

Need help?

SDN has been working closely with many HEIs (and individual teams/faculties), helping them to start and expand their delivery of Higher and Degree Apprenticeships. We offer briefings, consultancy support and the development of training materials. We specialise in apprenticeship end-point assessment and the levy too!

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