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Heriot-Watt University in Edinburgh is one of the pioneers of Graduate Apprenticeships, which allow apprentices to gain degrees while working for their employers. Robin Westacott explains the benefits of the new apprenticeships for the companies, the apprentices and the university.

From working with household names like BP, Shell and Siemens through to its knowledge transfer partnerships with Edinburgh gin-maker Spencerfield Spirit and heat battery developer SunAmp, the academic institution has an enviable record of working successfully with businesses.

The new Graduate Apprenticeship (GA) scheme offers apprentices the chance to gain a bachelor’s-level degree while working for their employer.

"GA are done over the same timescale as a traditional degree but the majority of the activity and the majority of the assessment is based on tasks carried out in the workplace as part of a job," explaing Robin Westacott, associate professor of chemical engineering at Heriot-Watt University and the lead for its GA programmes. 

The GA scheme is funded through the apprenticeship levy and paid by all employers in the UK that have a wage bill of more than £3m a year. The Scottish Government has decided to use the £221m raised by the levy north of the border to support skills, training and employment, including cash for the whole family of apprenticeships, from foundation apprenticeships to modern apprenticeships and GAs. SDS fully funds the GLAs and so there’s no cost to the apprentice and the employer is only responsible for the apprentice’s salary.

All big employers have to pay the levy and so the GA programme is a great way for them to get benefit for the new tax they pay

Robin Westacott

"Companies have a great opportunity to shape what they need from apprenticeships. Instead of applying to a university to do a course, the apprentices apply to an employer for a job and then the employer can choose to put them through the GA programme. It’s very different to traditional students applying through the University & Colleges Admissions Service (UCAS).”

Ahead of the first year of the GA scheme, many employers have chosen to put existing members of staff onto the programme to help them develop their skills. In subsequent years, Westacott expects that employers will put a mixture of existing employees and new recruits into the apprenticeships.

Apprentices on the programme will typically spend four days each week working for their employer and will then visit the university’s campus at Riccarton on the edge of Edinburgh for teaching, depending on the subject for their degree. During their time at university, apprentices will work alongside traditional students during some lectures and workshops, but will also have some unique classes with other apprentices.

The strength of the GA scheme is its flexibility and how it can be tailored to suit employers and their apprentices. Some lessons will take place online and some learning will be via work-based projects.

“We work with companies to figure out what tasks  apprentices can undertake in the workplace to show that they’ve gained that knowledge or developed the required skills. So, we could devise a project that the participant could undertake in the workplace that would be of benefit to the employer as well as the apprentice."

Robin Westacott

Westacott doesn’t just see GAs as a standalone programme. “A lot of work is being done on how we can tie the whole family of apprenticeships together,” he explains.

Westacott is no stranger to the links between business and academia. Even back during his undergraduate studies in applied chemistry at Hatfield Polytechnic – now the University of Hertfordshire – he undertook a “sandwich” degree, which involved spending a year working in industry.

After completing his doctorate at the University of Reading and working at King’s College London and the University of Texas at Austin, Westacott joined Heriot-Watt University in 2001 as a lecturer in chemical engineering. One role he has undertaken is that of admissions tutor, he was responsible for analysing applications from students who had completed higher national certificates (HNCs) and higher national diplomas (HNDs) for advanced entry.

“We also worked with Forth Valley College on transition for further education students,” Westacott says. “We then brought college students to work alongside the university students, which benefited both groups.”

Thanks to the deepening relationship with Forth Valley College, Westacott and Heriot-Watt also teamed up with Ineos – the international chemicals giant that bought the oil refinery and chemicals plant at Grangemouth from BP in 2005 – to launch the “engineers of the future” programme. The first three trainees from Ineos joined the scheme in 2008 and graduated with master’s degrees from the university in 2013.

Paul Campbell from Scottish Water said the GA scheme was a solution to the company`s workforce demographic. Read a full BBC article here!