If not university, then what?


By Sidharth Oberoi, Vice President of International Strategy at Instructure

Traditionally, a university degree has been seen as the pathway to better job opportunities and higher earning potential. Until not long ago, employers primarily used a degree as the de facto screening criterion for job applicants, perpetuating the cultural belief that a degree is essential for professional success. However, in the past decade, we are witnessing a significant shift in hiring practices at Fortune 500 and FTSE 100 companies that deserves our attention and consideration.

Every day, more employers in all kinds of industries increasingly recognise skills and practical knowledge over traditional degrees, evolving to a new era in employment dynamics that requires higher education institutions to respond creatively and flexibly. More than ever, higher education institutions need to offer learning opportunities that meet employer and student needs and that ultimately will allow them, as education providers, to stay relevant and competitive.

Over the past few decades, the UK’s education system has gradually opened up to offer a more diverse range of educational pathways. While apprenticeships have been around in the UK since the 12th century, with the growth of online learning and the need for reskilling and upskilling, apprenticeships and vocational education are increasingly gaining popularity as they offer alternative routes to access education and foster lifelong learning at lower costs to learners.

According to the latest global study from Hanover Research for Instructure, maker of the VLE Canvas, among those surveyed in the UK, 52% have considered apprenticeships as the primary skill-based learning opportunities for career advancement, and 42% have considered certificates. However, when asked about the skills-based learning opportunities offered by their education institutions to supplement traditional degree offerings, 51% responded “certificates” and 42% “apprenticeships.”

Why apprenticeships and how universities can foster them?

Apprenticeships represent a viable alternative for those interested in a more hands-on and vocational approach to learning and are looking to enter the workforce sooner while earning and learning simultaneously. The hands-on learning provides apprentices with valuable skills directly applicable to the workplace and ensures that they are job-ready with industry-relevant competencies.

In the UK, apprenticeships are available in various formats and for different industries, including healthcare, construction, finance, and more. They provide practical training and on-the-job experience, often leading to nationally recognised qualifications. Take as an example Education Secretary, Gillian Keegan, who last August shared in an article on The Telegraph, how General Motors sponsored her to study business studies at Liverpool John Moores University (Canvas customer) in a “degree apprenticeship.”

Universities have embraced the notion of degree apprenticeships, as it is now a common offering at several dozen institutions across the UK. By using a fully-featured VLE, universities can integrate apprenticeship opportunities into existing degree programs and work with employers to design curriculum elements that meet the specific skills and knowledge requirements of apprenticeships. In the same way, using VLEs can be cost-effective for both training providers and employers as it reduces the need for physical materials and traditional classroom space.

When apprenticeship programs incorporate virtual learning as a part of the curriculum using VLEs, such as Canvas, and other technologies, they allow apprentices to access resources, materials, and training modules remotely, complementing their practical experience in a more flexible way. This flexibility is essential for apprentices with work commitments who must balance their learning with their jobs. In the same way, as technology and industries continue to evolve, VLEs make it easier to update and adapt apprenticeship programs rapidly, ensuring that apprentices are equipped with the most current skills and knowledge.

Instructure’s report highlights that for those in the UK, the most valuable aspects of skills-based learning are practical application of knowledge and skills (74%), feedback on progress and performance (69%), and programme flexibility (60%).

At the same time, both students and educators value a variety of aspects of skills-based learning opportunities, such as the practical application of topics (74%) and progress/performance feedback (69%) and the integration of technology (57%).

Alternative routes to education foster accessibility

Accessibility in education is a fundamental principle that strives to ensure equal opportunities for all learners, regardless of their diverse abilities and needs. Institutions must foster greater accessibility for all learners to ensure that equality and equity are enabled to help meet learners wherever they are in their learning journey. It is imperative that we consider different avenues for education outside of the traditional realms to help achieve those goals.

For instance, offering alternative routes to education opens the doors to non-traditional students, those who learn in different ways, are in a diverse age range, or cannot afford a university degree. Many talented individuals who may not have had access to higher education can use apprenticeships, certificates, and micro-credentials to gain recognition for their abilities and have the opportunity to start a successful career or switch paths as their lifelong learning journey evolves.

In the same way, High-Tech Qualifications (HTQs) are emerging to create new opportunities for employed learners, offering them the possibility to upskill or reskill and position themselves for promotions or new job opportunities within their current organisations or at other companies that value the specialised skills they’ve acquired. As of September 2023, HTQs are now eligible for the same financing offers from the UK government that are available to those pursuing traditional degrees. Also, HTQs are often recognised internationally, meaning employed learners can access job opportunities globally.

Whether an individual is just finishing secondary school, trying to get a promotion, embarking on a new career, or is looking to return to the workforce after a career break, having the option to look into alternative routes to education, such as those in apprenticeships will provide greater access to education and participate in the rapidly evolving world of work.

As more UK universities are offering these alternatives, it will be crucial to integrate them with flexible and hybrid learning models with stackable credentials, allowing for a more personalised approach; therefore, students can focus on the skills that will have the most immediate impact on their actual or future jobs.