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Danielle McWall, Head of the Department of Accounting, Finance and Economics at Ulster University Business School, discusses the role of Higher Level Apprenticeships in future-proofing organisational talent and skills.

As a result of the changing nature of work, the business environment has seen a renewed emphasis on education and skills. While organisations sector-wide reassess their talent strategies, it is important to look towards more flexible and alternative pathways to higher level skills development and the apprenticeship route is becoming an increasingly attractive and powerful way for employers to nurture requisite skills and widen their talent pool.

For businesses looking to attract the best and brightest new talent, expand expertise in a specific area or upskill existing staff, Higher Level Apprenticeships (HLAs) offer a cost-effective way to build industry-relevant skills, improve productivity and boost business performance.

As Head of the Department of Accounting, Finance and Economics at Ulster University Business School (UUBS), I see first-hand the calibre of students attracted to our highly innovative and market-driven HLAs, and more importantly, I see these students grow and mature into high-quality, professional experts in their fields.

Higher Level Apprenticeships offered at university level provide school leavers, the opportunity to gain a recognised qualification, from degree to masters level while in paid employment in the private sector and are an excellent alternative to full-time study, giving students the chance to “earn as they learn”.

Practical on-the-job experience coupled with the opportunity to practice and apply relevant theory, knowledge and understanding in real-time results in students making a valuable and immediate impact in the work environment. The evidence is hard to argue with, and the HLA students are leaving us with excellent top-end qualifications.

At UUBS we offer a range of industry-led Higher Level Apprenticeships, some of which are long-standing programmes such as the BSc Hons Business Technology degree. This award-winning programme was co-created with industry to meet the needs of a rapidly changing professional services sector and has since evolved into an integral element of Deloitte Belfast’s Talent Strategy.

Initially aimed at school leavers, applicants have included people from a diverse range of backgrounds and ages. In 2019 the first cohort of 17 students graduated with ten first class honours degrees and seven achieving a 2:1 classification. Six years after its development, we have welcomed around 200 students onto this programme as Deloitte BrightStarts.

According to Jackie Henry, Senior Partner at Deloitte, graduates of the programme are now in positions which normally take traditional graduates two years to reach at the firm, with those who joined the company as apprentices now making up almost one-fifth of the Deloitte Belfast team.

BrightStarts work in every area of the business, from audit to human capital, tax consulting to technology and Deloitte attribute positive business impact to the fresh approach apprentices bring. In 2016 this HLA was awarded best ‘Innovation in Partnership’ at the DELNI Apprenticeship of the Year Awards and is constantly being refreshed in line with market and industry requirements, providing the student with invaluable knowledge and the necessary skills to further their careers.

To support skills pipelines in the developing financial and technology services sectors, the Business School have a range of HLA solutions on offer including a new pioneering BSc Hons Financial Technology degree which was developed with local industry to strengthen Northern Ireland’s reputation as a leading global location for FinTech. The programme launched in September 2020 and is already attracting excellent students and employers alike, including FinTrU, Danske Bank and AllState. Ross Gillespie, Executive Director – Technology at FinTrU says the BSc Hons Finance Technology HLA plays an important role in affording local talent opportunities to work on the global stage and gain industry-recognised qualifications whilst applying that knowledge to their career at FinTrU.

In addition and to support the business and shared services sectors, we are launching a new HLA in the BSc Hons Leading on Customer Operations in September 2021. Whilst, for those of you with graduate employees or employees who have recently moved into new roles, we also offer masters level HLAs including the MSc Global Capital Marketsand a new MSc Business in Technology programme to help you further attract new talent and build future leadership and management pipelines.

Widening access and participation to higher education is essential and as part of the government’s pledge to increase degree apprenticeships, many undergraduate and postgraduate HLAs are fully or partly funded by the Department for the Economy which offers financial assistance by making HLAs a highly cost-effective way to hire talent and bridge skills gaps.

The future prosperity of Northern Ireland will depend on a highly-skilled, diverse and innovative labour market. Through investing in flexible learning pathways such as apprenticeships businesses can help create and retain an inclusive future workforce needed to navigate the challenges and harness the opportunities ahead.

To find out more about the range of HLAs on offer at Ulster University visit our Apprenticeship Hub at

Alternatively, if you would like to discuss new apprenticeship programmes and organisational development opportunities, please contact UUBS’s Business Engagement Team at