A trailblazing undergraduate program that pays students $30,000 a year while they learn on the job will take its first cohort of 30 students next year.
The five-year degree apprenticeship in software engineering, the first of its kind in Australia, has been lauded as a landmark move that could revolutionise university study particularly in skill areas of high demand, such as the building of nuclear submarines under the AUKUS agreement.
Tom Johnson started his degree apprenticeship in the UK at 16 and is now on secondment with BAE Systems in Adelaide. Ben Searcy
Unlike traditional trade apprenticeships, students will be paid to attend work and study at university while receiving on-the-job training by skilled supervisors. They will graduate after five years with a degree from the University of South Australia, a trade certificate and an almost 100 per cent guarantee of a job.
They will also graduate debt-free.
South Australian Premier Peter Malinauskas said he had seen degree apprenticeships in action at defence contractor BAE Systems’ submarine shipyard in the UK last year.
“This is a wonderful opportunity for young people to undertake a high-quality university education, while getting paid to work, and learn on the job, at a major defence employer,” Mr Malinauskas said.
Georgette Elston, head of resourcing and early careers for BAE Systems, said the contractor had been running degree apprenticeships with universities in the UK since 2015 and now covered 20 discipline areas, including aerospace engineering, management, nuclear engineering and enterprise architecture.
“When they graduate they have five years’ work experience, a degree in a skill area that is in high demand,” Ms Elston said.
“We have a 93 per cent retention rate, which is exceptional when you consider that traditional apprenticeships have a 50 per cent retention rate.”
All companies involved in the University of South Australia program, including BAE Systems, Lockheed Martin, DXC Technology, ASC and the Defence Teaming Centre, have agreed to pay tuition fees so apprentices graduate debt-free.
The new model fundamentally changes the definition of apprenticeship in Australia, Ms Elston said, bringing it into line with other countries.
Tom Johnson, 30, completed a degree apprenticeship in 2013 in the UK. He signed on for mechanical engineering as a 16-year-old and gained his A-levels and degree from the University of Hull, all while working at BAE.
“It gave me a head-start because I had five years of work experience by the time I graduated. That gives you confidence, you are better at communicating and have built a network and have learned how the business works,” he said.
Mr Johnson is in Adelaide after being seconded to work on the Hunter class frigate program. Having worked for BAE Systems for 14 years, he has been promoted to a managerial position.
“I would say the degree apprenticeship is more than just a normal day job plus the academic stuff,” he said.
“I’ve had a lot of life-enhancing experiences. It’s just the best thing.”
While next year’s inaugural intake in SA will have a maximum of 30 apprentices, Tom Raimondo, dean of programs for IT, mathematics and data science at UniSA, said the program had already attracted expressions of interest from 75 potential students.
“It’s the ideal model in that students are tightly integrated and embedded with an employer, and we are using industry-based supervisors to guide the educational experience and the work-integrated learning that the students are doing. That’s the real innovation,” Professor Raimondo said.
Megan Lilly, head of workforce development for AiGroup, has been involved with the degree apprenticeship from the outset. She said now that the first program was off the ground, she expected it to expand in the coming years.
The federal government committed $40 million for TAFE and higher apprenticeships when it released its employment white paper in September.
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