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‘Perhaps we need to reconsider five-year pharmacist apprenticeships’

A degree apprenticeship could make further education more accessible for aspiring pharmacists, says Nahim Khan, but more transparency is needed to get the profession's support

I agree with the idea of a degree-level apprenticeship*. However, the proposals that were recently consulted on – and eventually put on hold indefinitely – have left several unanswered questions.

I believe that everyone should be able to access higher education. A degree can positively influence social mobility and aid individuals to reach their aspirations. Unfortunately not all are able to access one for a variety of reasons, be it not wanting to take out a student loan, having to provide financially for dependents, or maybe the university experience just isn’t for them. However, I believe these barriers should not stop individuals from achieving their goals. A degree apprenticeship could provide an alternative route for aspiring pharmacists to enter the profession.

Reflecting on my time at university, I remember how after doing a summer placement at a large multiple I knew this was the right career for me. All the theory learned at university was being put into practice and I loved it. I went into my second year very motivated and studied hard. While there were placements at university, these only consisted of a day, and were compromised by their shortness. I wish they had been longer, akin to medical and nursing degrees. An apprenticeship could incorporate longer placements for trainee pharmacists.

However, I do have major concerns as to how four years of university education could fit into a five-year degree apprenticeship. This has not been explained, and so far the only proposals on the table lack information, engagement and transparency.

Surely there is a vision as to what a pharmacy apprentice would do when they are doing on-the-job training in a community pharmacy? Would they stack shelves? Would they start training as a counter assistant and then work in the dispensary? There are already problems with the variability that trainees experience in their pre-registration year. That’s just one year, not five. How can we feel confident that quality would be maintained across a full five-year apprenticeship?

Many have looked at the very limited information available in the consultation process and come to the conclusion they did not like it, nor did they feel that a degree apprenticeship model is necessary. If a pharmacist apprenticeship were to be proposed again tomorrow, what may help is a more detailed explanation of what a it would actually entail, with a clear explanation that these differ from shorter apprenticeships, [typically 12-18 months].

I think the profession’s criticism is understandable – the lack of transparency has created suspicion, and if you wanted more information, who would you ask? The employers in the trailblazer group haven’t been fully revealed, but being open about the members involved in the process would go a long way to increasing transparency.

We’ve also been informed that the apprenticeship degree proposal was driven by workforce issues, but little further detail has been offered. What are the mysterious workforce issues that the traditional routes cannot address, but the degree apprenticeship can?

With rumours that the proposals have not been fully buried, the profession needs more detailed information and engagement now, not at a future short-lived consultation. As a pharmacist, I am proud to be part of this sector and wish to be part of a consultation that is measured, responsive to concerns and open for a meaningful duration. One step in the right direction is the Pharmacists’ Defence Association (PDA) has accepted an invitation to be a key stakeholder in future discussions.

Despite my concerns, I broadly agree with the idea of degree apprenticeships*. At least the proposals have prompted discussions around who is part of the pharmacy profession, what direction it is travelling in, and who has a voice.

Nahim Khan is a GP pharmacist in Warrington, a lecturer at the University of Chester and a relief pharmacist for Boots

The views expressed in this article are Mr Khan's and do not necessarily represent those of his employers.

*Article edited on January 27, 2020 at request of Mr Khan, changing "degree apprenticeships for pharmacists" to "degree apprenticeships"; and "degree-level pharmacist apprenticeship" to "degree-level apprenticeship"

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