Why Australian universities should consider an apprenticeship model

By Ron Maxwell - CEO

I read with interest recently that Universities Australia is pushing a degree apprenticeship model for teachers, and it’s something that makes so much sense on a number of fronts. Not only will it help to alleviate skill shortages, but it will also help students to ensure it is the right career for them from the outset.

Essentially, it’s applying an apprenticeship model to university studies and, for me, it’s a model that could work across a wide range of degrees. Here’s why:

Many countries are recognising the power of apprenticeships

Across the world, the diploma-level apprenticeship is increasing in popularity because it develops students’ technical and workplace skills to a high level to meet the growing demands of today’s workforce. Students emerge from these studies with a holistic range of skills that will see them thrive in a fast-paced world.

While Australia has been slower on the uptake of this model, it’s popular in countries like Germany and Switzerland. Both countries are exploring options for even higher apprenticeship qualifications, such as ‘Bachelor Professional’ and ‘Master Professional’, that are gained through the vocational education and training system.

The move towards higher-level apprenticeships recognises the importance of the model in preparing young people for the challenges of an ever-changing workforce. And it’s something Australian universities could learn from our vocational education and training system.

Learning on the job works

Apprenticeships work because they effectively balance classroom study and on-the-job learning, giving students and employers the best of both worlds.

Firstly, an apprenticeship allows students to go beyond theory and develop the real-world skills that will see them thrive. This is not just about the technical skills; it’s about workplace soft and interpersonal skills that can’t be taught in a classroom or simulation. It’s also about experiencing the challenges of the job first-hand and learning from experience.

Secondly, it gives students peace of mind that they are in the right industry. If a student sits in a lecture theatre for 2, 3 or even 4 years before they get out on the job, it can be hard to know if the job is for them. If we take the teaching example, there is a wide chasm between education theory and teaching 30 students with various challenges, learning needs and behavioural traits.

Thirdly, students learn from people doing the job right now, not theory specialists who may have been out of the industry for some time. Leaning on the job imparts recent, relevant and real-world knowledge that simply can’t be learned through theory-based study.

Fourthly, the ‘earn while you learn’ model ensures students are bringing in an income and focusing on their chosen career path rather than working in an unrelated part-time job just to pay the bills while they study.

And last, but certainly not least, apprenticeships are competency-based, meaning the student must demonstrate they have the skills before they can complete their studies. This gives future employers a guarantee that their new hires can get the job done.

A model that could work for many degrees

Student attrition has long been a problem for educational institutions, and it can have far-reaching impacts. A place in the program and public and private resources are allocated to someone who will never realise the benefits. But I believe this is something a more practical model could alleviate.

In fact, I remember reading a study by the Grattan Institute that surveyed students who had dropped out of university. Of those who did not complete their studies, 40% said they would not begin their degree again knowing what they know now.

An apprenticeship model could address this issue directly, helping students stay engaged, experience life in the real world, achieve genuine skill development and earn some money along the way.

Equally important, it will deepen relationships between institutions, employers and industries, leading to better outcomes all around. It will also get boots on the ground faster in industries facing dire skills shortages, like teaching.

And, perhaps even more critically, it will get the right people into these professions who are suited to the job, committed to the industries and can make a real mark. This is a win for the individual and the industry more broadly.

VET and universities can work together

Australia has had an effective apprenticeship model since 1973, and while there is always room for continuous improvement, its basic principles have continued to work for close to 50 years.

Of late, there has been a big awakening, with employers realising skill development must be shorter and sharper to keep pace with the ever-increasing rate of change. And this is a challenge our education systems at all levels must address.

Right now, we have a once-in-a-generation opportunity for the university and VET sectors to work closely together to put Australia at the forefront of post-school education. It’s my hope that exploring apprenticeship models for teaching degrees will be the first step to building a stronger future for us all.