Apprenticeships at Levels 7 and 8


During this last year, the Education and Research Committee (ERC) has taken forward the development of a Level 7 Apprenticeship Standard in OR and Analytics (OR&A). Apprenticeships at Level 7 are emerging as an attractive route that enable OR&A employers to leverage their apprenticeship levy payments to provide employees with MSc-level education and training.

The actual development of an OR&A Apprenticeship Standard is undertaken not by The OR Society nor by an educational provider but by a Trailblazer group of employers. The ERC and HORAF (the Heads of OR and Analytics Forum) have been working to bring employers together. The result is that the first meeting of the Trailblazer group was due to take place in January.


To get even this far, we had to initiate a relationship with the Institute for Apprenticeships (IfA), whose remit is to ensure the development of high quality apprenticeships so that they are viewed and respected as highly as other education routes, in our case as the traditional taught-masters route into OR&A. The IfA first had to be briefed about the nature of OR in order to decide how best to allocate us a ’relationship manager’ from one of their sector routes (now known as ‘occupational maps’).

Given OR’s strong academic presence in UK business and management schools, one might have thought OR fitted well into the business route but, after receiving more information about what OR is (and what it is not), the IfA at first thought a better fit might the digital route. OR Society members will be familiar with the challenges of defining what is OR.

Eventually, after an internal IfA discussion, we were allocated a definitive relationship manager from the legal, finance and accounting sector route who is very keen to work with The OR Society. He will advise and support the Trailblazer group in the lengthy and arduous process of getting approval for the proposal, occupational standard and end-point assessment (EPA) plan, which are distinct approval stages in the development of any IfA apprenticeship.

Operational research as a distinct profession

We will still have to make the case that OR is a distinct profession and should not conform to an existing occupational Level 7 standard in affine routes such as systems engineering or one already under development such as systems thinking or data science. Interestingly, the existence of the Government OR Service (GORS), with its impressive recruitment webpages and hundreds of OR professionals working across the whole range of ministries, reassured the IfA that OR seems to be a distinct occupation.

So what promise do apprenticeships hold for the future of OR education in the UK? They certainly offer a further opportunity for universities to be providers of education in partnership with employers, but it does mean conforming more tightly to externally-imposed content specifications than many universities may have been used to and to keeping fees within funding bands. How this will pan out in practice remains to be seen. What kind of university will be motivated to be a provider? Consider the kind of university which currently has a master’s course that attracts a good proportion of oversea students paying high fees, maybe more profitably than might be possible within the limits of IfA funding bands. Although apprenticeship provision is a different student market, might
such universities be less motivated to participate as providers?

Is there a risk that apprenticeship provision might just be offered by certain types of university? I hope not and I’d be interested in readers’ views on this.

Apprenticeships at doctoral level?

Apprenticeships can also exist at Level 8, that is at doctoral level, although none seem to have yet been approved by the IfA. While Level 7 apprenticeships at master’s level are defined around specific occupations, a doctorate is not necessarily grounded in a particular subject area. In educational terms, it demonstrates that the student can carry out rigorous original research at a very high level and defend it to experts. Or, as the IfA’s own Level 8 knowledge descriptor puts it, the apprentice can (a) “develop original practical or technological understanding to create ways forward in contexts that lack definition and where there are many complex, interacting factors” and (b) “critically analyse, interpret and evaluate complex information, concepts and theories to produce new knowledge and theories.” This chimes well with what many understand as doctoral outcomes.

So which employers might form a Level 8 Trailblazer group? Doctoral graduates can obviously be employed by universities (not just as academics but also as research managers), by research organisations and by consultancies with specialist intellectual or academic requirements among others. Many of these employers will seek to recruit doctoral graduates, but even universities recruit academics without doctorates – for example OR practitioners – for a variety of reasons, maybe to focus on teaching modelling or consultancy skills, to liaise with industry and employers, to provide practitioner experience to applied research teams, etc.. 

Universities could encourage such staff to study part-time towards a doctorate, funded by the apprenticeship levy (for which universities also have to pay, just like any large employer). Some universities are already grouping together to propose Level 8 Doctoral Apprenticeships, the “occupation” being, for example, a “higher education academic professional”.
Would it make sense to propose a doctoral apprenticeship standard for OR&A spanning both academia and practitioner employers? The society’s Research Panel is pondering this. Again, let me have your views on this.