Geoscience Degree Apprenticeship
Sian Davies-Vollum and colleagues provide an overview of the recently approved Geoscience Degree Apprenticeship, which aims to provide an alternative pathway to a geoscience career
The new degree apprenticeships (DAs) are an important development in the higher education landscape, offering an alternate pathway to earning a degree while gaining practical work experience. Apprenticeships are growing in popularity as a way to earn a degree without the debt of a student loan while undertaking a paid job in the relevant industry. As we prepare for the launch of a degree apprenticeship in geoscience, it seems prudent to share with the sector information about it and about DAs in general.
The idea to develop an apprenticeship in geoscience that is equivalent to the undergraduate degree level (termed a level 6 DA) arose from a geoscience recruitment strategy developed by Universities Geoscience UK and the Geological Society (see page 30). The rationale was that a DA would provide an alternate route to earning a geoscience degree, not only to help address the alarming drop in students studying geoscience (including geology, Earth science, and geoscience) degrees, but also to provide an offer that could support diversification of the geoscience workforce.
Apprenticeships attract approximately equal gender distribution (Institute for Fiscal Studies, 2020), tend to have a higher proportion of students from working class backgrounds (University Vocational Awards Council, 2018) and, since 2018, the percentage increase in the ethnic diversity of students taking a DA has been more than double the increase of those taking a standard undergraduate degree (Office for Students, 2023).
How they work
Degree apprenticeships are funded by the apprenticeship levy. This is a tax paid by all employers with a payroll of more than £3 million, which can be accessed to fund apprenticeships. Smaller organisations, with an annual pay bill of less than £3 million, don’t pay the levy, but can receive government subsidies of up to 95% of the cost of degree apprenticeships. Additionally, if the business has fewer than 50 employees, the government will pay 100% of the apprenticeship cost if, at the start of the apprenticeship, the degree apprentice is aged 16-18, or aged 19-24 with a local authority Education, Health, and Care plan.
The process of developing a degree apprenticeship is led by industry, with support from academic advisors who work collectively as a ‘trailblazer’ group with support from the Institute for Apprenticeships and Technical Education. The trailblazer group that developed the Geoscience DA was made up of representatives from a large and diverse group of companies that operate in the geoscience field and employ geoscientists, including Atkins, Tarmac, Jacobs, Scottish Power, Cornish Lithium, Idris Consulting Limited, and BAM Nutall (among others).
Several universities and other educational establishments, as well as the Geological Society and British Geological Survey, were also involved in the trailblazer group. Paul Roberts, a Regional Director at Aecom, chaired the group, and the academic advisors were Dr Nick Koor and Professor Sian Davies-Vollum.
The geological content of the Geoscience DA is similar to current undergraduate degrees and is defined by an ‘apprenticeship standard’. This maps the geoscientist’s duties regarding certain knowledge, skills, and behaviours, and defines what the DA Geoscientist must achieve to pass the apprenticeship and degree.
The content of the geoscience standard was guided by industry and informed by the Quality Assurance Agency’s recently revised (2022) Earth and Environmental Sciences Subject Benchmark Statement, which provides guidelines for what is covered at degree level. Each DA also has an end-point assessment that defines how the apprentice is to be formally assessed. This is an integrated DA, so the end-point assessment also acts as the final assessment for the award of the degree, similar to the final year project in a full-time degree.
A DA should be seen as a job integrated with study for a fully recognised degree on a par with any other degree qualification. Training and education are split between industry and university. A degree apprentice spends approximately 20% of their time studying at university and 80% learning ‘on the job’. The schedule of study can vary greatly from learning in blocks to a day-release model. Apprenticeships thus take longer to complete than a traditional degree. The Geoscience DA will take 60 months, which is quite common for level 6 (undergraduate level) degree apprenticeships.
The Geoscience DA is aligned to relevant professional body recognitions. It maps to the Geological Society degree accreditation to ensure it meets necessary requirements. It also has professional recognition by the Geological Society, providing a route to becoming a Fellow and Chartered Geologist or Chartered Scientist, as well as the Science Council and Institute of Materials, Minerals & Mining, which provide routes for becoming a Member and Registered Scientist.
The standard and end-point assessment for the Geoscience DA have been approved, but the official sign off from the Department of Education is still required and is expected later this year. Once fully published, it will be for universities to take the standard and the end-point assessment and develop the Geoscience DA in conjunction with industry partners. It is likely the first Geoscience DA programmes will be available in September 2025 because the process for university new course approval can take up to two years.
There are obvious benefits of DAs to both industry and students. Industry is able to secure loyal employees via a pipeline of graduates who they work with throughout their degree. Companies with a £3 million-plus payroll can use the levy, with smaller organisations also able to access funding. As apprentices, students complete their degree with no debts, have a paid job in the geoscience sector while earning their degree, and receive an excellent learning opportunity that combines on-the-job training with a higher education.
Our aim is that the Geoscience DA will help combat the current recruitment issues within higher education, as well as the skills gap facing the geoscience sector, but this will only happen if our community – universities and industry partners in particular – embrace this new approach.
Professor Sian Davies-Vollum
University of Northampton, UK, and Vice-Chair of University Geoscience UK.
Dr Nick Koor
University of Portsmouth, UK, and Chair of University Geoscience UK.
Regional Director at Aecom, Newcastle upon Tyne, UK.
For more information about the Geoscience Degree Apprenticeship, visit the Institute for Apprenticeships and Technical Education website: www.instituteforapprenticeships.org/apprenticeship-standards/geoscientist-integrated-degree
- Earth and Environmental Sciences QAA Subject Benchmark Statement (2022); www.qaa.ac.uk/the-quality-code/subject-benchmark-statements/earth-sciences-environmental-science-and-environmental-studies
- Institute for Apprenticeships and Technical Education. The geoscientist integrated degree; www.instituteforapprenticeships.org/apprenticeship-standards/geoscientist-integrated-degree
- Institute for Fiscal Studies (2020) Higher and degree apprenticeships: New analysis of take-up and outcomes; www.ifs.org.uk/publications/14709
- Office for Students (2023) Size and shape of provision dashboard; www.officeforstudents.org.uk/data-and-analysis/size-and-shape-of-provision-data-dashboard/data-dashboard/
- University Vocational Awards Council (2018); www.uvac.ac.uk
- University Vocational Awards Council (2018) The Degree Apprenticeship Toolkit; www.uvac.ac.uk/wp-content/uploads/2019/04/UVAC-Degree-Apprenticeship-Toolkit.pdf