The first ever cohort of Degree Apprentices have all graduated with honours from the University of Sunderland providing a major boost to the region’s high-tech skills gap.

Sunderland is part of a select group of UK higher-level teaching institutions working directly with businesses on the new Government supported Higher Degree Apprenticeship programme, designed by employers, universities and professional bodies, to deliver high-end skills and offer a tailored alternative to a traditional degree course. Degree apprentices spend part of their time at university and part with their employer.

Now, after taking three years to complete the Digital & Technology Solutions Professional Degree Apprenticeship, specialising in Software Engineering, alongside their full-time jobs at Accenture – a world leading management consulting and technology services company – 12 students will finally step onto the stage at the Stadium of Light to collect their much deserved awards.

Test Engineer Lucy Sarginson, 21, from Whitley Bay said: “I have been lucky enough to be a part of the Degree Apprenticeship Scheme which has opened so many doors in my career.

“Balancing a full-time job and completing a degree is challenging, however, the sense of achievement I have felt upon completion is amazing.”

She added: “Having the University course primarily tailored for the apprenticeship scheme has positively impacted and enhanced my work-based knowledge.

“Based on my experience I can say that degree level apprenticeships provide a great opportunity for young people to boost their careers.

“It’s great to finally graduate and I have really been looking forward to the ceremony.”

Application Development Associate Jimmy Brown, 33, from Sunderland, said: “The Degree Apprenticeship has been a huge learning curve, but gaining experience in a real-world environment while studying, has certainly helped.

“Don’t get me wrong, it’s not easy. You have to adapt quickly to organise your time and your work load.

“The main benefit is that when you graduate and you are looking to progress your career, you are already ahead of regular students because of your experience within an organisation.

“I would definitely recommend the degree apprenticeship organisations looking to create an experienced, qualified and capable work force.

“It feels good to finally graduate after a challenging time. The ceremony will be a great day for all involved.”

Sunderland has been praised and highlighted as a trailblazing institution for its delivery of the Degree Apprenticeships scheme, which has developed bespoke modules for the programme in partnership with Accenture, rather than incorporating students into courses already running.

So successful has the programme been that Accenture has continued its partnership with Sunderland, with 80 of their apprentices now studying with the University.

Other companies to partner with the programme include Sage, Newcastle Building Society, Tombola and regional NHS trusts.

Gary Unthank, Principal Lecturer in the Faculty of Technology, says: “We are delighted to see our first cohort of Degree Apprentices graduate.

“They’ve all worked incredibly hard to achieve their degrees and fully deserve their success.

“We’ve seen them develop at an astonishing rate over the last three years, there has been such creativity and confidence among them that some have gone on to become lead developers on projects for Accenture’s blue chip clients. They all have very bright futures ahead of them.”

Karen Marshall, Accenture Apprentice Education and Engagement Lead at Accenture in Newcastle, said: “The University and Accenture developed the degree together from the start to ensure it could be delivered within three years, which was very important to the business.

“It’s been a great learning curve and we’re delighted at how well it has gone. In those three years the students have shown how focused they really are during their day release from work, trying to make the most of the opportunity for that day.

“Working full-time, I also think they really understand the value of that degree in the workplace and understand that it’s important to try their best.”

She added: “One of the great things about the staff at Sunderland is their willingness to listen to what we are interested in, what’s useful for us and what will really help develop apprentices in the workplace.

“It’s an amazing way to develop entry level opportunities for people who might never have had that chance; these are young people who didn’t have a degree when they came to us, and now they are graduating and doing really well, they are excelling in work and some of them have been promoted already.

“It was very emotional to see our apprentices graduate today. We go through the journey with them and provide a lot of support along the way so it’s great to see them excel and have this opportunity.”

With a shortage of coding and software development skills widely acknowledged as a significant problem facing the digital economy, the University believes investing in these skills is crucial to the future economic success of the region and the country.

Professor Alastair Irons, Academic Dean in the Faculty of Technology, explained: “We developed this new study opportunity as a result of our work with businesses, to support skills growth – we continually align our courses to the current and future needs of employers.

“Our Digital & Technology Solutions degree provides a route for employed apprentices to develop their skills and knowledge in computing and IT to Honours degree level, at the same time as contributing to the workload and operation of their employer.

“Higher and Degree Apprenticeships enable both large and small organisations to transform their performance by enhancing the skills of existing employees as well as attracting fresh talent, using the apprenticeship levy and government funding.”

Sunderland is one of only 18 universities to receive a share of up to £250k in a £4.5m Government pot, to develop the Degree Apprenticeship programmes.

The Government funding has been awarded by HEFCE to projects focused on boosting the number of degree apprenticeships available.

It forms a key part of the drive to strengthen the reputation of on-the-job training by raising standards and creating more high-quality opportunities for young people and adults from all backgrounds.

As a result of the success of the Digital & Technology Solutions Professional Degree Apprenticeship, the University has also launched a Chartered Manager Degree Apprenticeship programme, and a suite of three Degree Apprenticeships in Engineering as well as health related programmes. Click here for more information.

The Degree Apprentices receive their Digital and Technology Solutions BSc (Hons) degree at the Stadium of Light, during the summer graduation ceremonies, where thousands of students received their degrees from Chancellor Steve Cram.