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To celebrate National Apprenticeship Week, professionals at the University of Plymouth have shared their experiences on studying for their qualification while working on the front line during the pandemic.

The University is one of the largest providers in the country of nursing degree apprenticeships, and was the first in South West to deliver the registered nurse degree apprenticeship.

See the full list of apprenticeships offered on the University website 


“At school I was told I wasn’t clever enough to be a nurse… but I’ve worked my way up through healthcare, had some outstanding study support, and I know this is what I’m meant to do.”

Tracy Spencer is a Community Mental Health Nurse with Livewell Southwest, and had always wanted to be a nurse. Written off at school, she wasn’t sure of the path she should take. And now in her fifties, with more than a few challenges along the way, she has qualified as a nurse via the degree apprenticeship – and already secured her first promotion.

Tracy Spencer picture for National Apprenticeship Week

“I always tried my best at school, but was told by a careers adviser that I wasn’t clever enough to be a nurse,” 

she said. 

“I became a hairdresser but nursing was the dream! As years progressed, I went to work in care, before joining Livewell in 2008. As I’ve worked up through roles I’ve been praised for being dedicated to the job, always putting patients first and it’s something I really pride myself on. So when the degree apprenticeship opportunity came up at the University of Plymouth, I decided to apply and was delighted – if shocked – to get in, starting in December 2019.

“It wasn’t easy – I scored really badly in the first module and had a massive knock in confidence. But thanks to one of the many amazing lecturers, I was referred to the University’s study support team and was diagnosed with dyslexia and dyspraxia. Even knowing I had these difficulties made me realise I didn’t lack intelligence, I just learnt differently.”

The next challenge came in March 2020, when lockdown hit and students’ learning was moved online within a short space of time.

Tracy said: 

“It was a strange experience for all of us. Placements continued though and were a welcome relief – I did a really interesting one in male recovery, and it taught me a huge amount.

“Like many, living, working and studying through a pandemic was hard. Then I had a real lightbulb moment when I realised ‘I’ve done it’. It was in a zoom lecture about lived experience, and I just realised that I’d already got everything needed to be a nurse – I only had three official assignments to go, and then I’d be properly qualified. It was amazing.

“I’m always really positive with patients and tell them ‘you can do it’, so it was great to finally take my own advice. I’m beyond excited as well that I’ve just secured a band six developmental role, which is a huge achievement.

“I’ve worked my way up through healthcare, had some outstanding study support, and I know this is what I’m meant to do. If you have a dream career, go for it – I’m beyond happy that I did.”


“People often think apprenticeships are for early career, but my experience has been invaluable to my senior leadership position.”

Michael Visick is Chief Operating Officer of the National Institute for Health Research (NIHR) Clinical Research Network (CRN) South West Peninsula, one of 15 networks across the UK set up to help deliver health and care studies in both NHS and non-NHS settings including vaccine trials for COVID-19. Here, Mike explains why the Senior Leader MBA apprenticeship has been so important to his career.

“Almost overnight, the speed of our work accelerated as we were required to facilitate vaccine trials on top of our ongoing portfolio,” he said. “After a career in the army and then joining the NHS in 2005, I developed lots of leadership skills and I’m pleased with where it’s taken me in my career. But I knew I wanted the academic understanding to underpin my day-to-day work, and the apprenticeship has given me all of that and more.”

Mike started the apprenticeship in January 2021, and is set to graduate in August 2023.

“People often think apprenticeships are for early career, but my study has been invaluable to my senior leadership position,” 

he continued. 

“COVID-19 has been an unsettling time for everyone – even more so for anyone in or around healthcare, as they’re dealing with it professionally as well as personally – and quick decisions have been needed to get things done efficiently and fairly." 

"Starting the apprenticeship in January 2021 felt like challenging timing, but it’s actually helped me to understand people’s behaviours and the theory behind them in order to make the right calls for everyone.”

The CRN SWP covers Cornwall, Devon and Somerset, and is responsible for recruiting to some of the UK’s most impactful clinical trials. One of their latest trials looks at antiviral medications for COVID-19, helping to prevent symptoms from worsening and stopping hospitalisations.

“The work of the CRN is just part of what makes the South West a real go to for national clinical trials. It’s been a privilege to help work get to this stage, but it hasn’t been without its challenges. I’m very lucky that the academic support on the apprenticeship has been incredible, and having the opportunity to network with peers and see how others approach certain scenarios has been really useful too.

“Without a doubt, the pandemic has been one of the most challenging times of my professional life. But I know I will look back at it with pride in what we were able to do – and a great deal of my confidence has come from the degree apprenticeship at the University of Plymouth.”

Ali Richardson National Apprenticeship Week

"I realised that doing the academic work, completing the placements, and ultimately improving my knowledge and skills would be hugely beneficial for both me and the people I care for.”

Ali Richardson is a nursing degree apprentice from Truro in Cornwall, studying at the University of Plymouth’s Truro School of Nursing. Following 20 years in healthcare roles at Royal Cornwall Hospital NHS Foundation Trust (RCHT), she decided to apply for the apprenticeship after a call out in the Trust’s staff bulletin – and her success has already won her a regional award.

“I was working as an assistant practitioner resuscitation skills trainer teaching adult and paediatric basic life support, when the weekly bulletin from our Chief Executive came around,” 

Ali said. 

“It mentioned about the opportunity to apply for a registered nurse degree apprenticeship, which would be supported by the Trust, and I was intrigued. The further I got into the application process, the more I realised how much I wanted to do it, so I’m delighted I was accepted.

“Enrolling in December 2020, right in the middle of the pandemic, felt strange to begin with. The nature of this degree apprenticeship is that I’m full time for 18 months, so we do a mixture of full-time study and placement. It felt strange being at home during these unprecedented times, but I realised that doing the academic work, completing the placements, and ultimately improving my knowledge and skills would be hugely beneficial for both me and the people I care for.”

Ali’s outstanding work on placement and beyond won her the Health, Care and Public Services Apprentice of the Year category of the Cornwall Apprenticeship Awards. 

The nomination praised her work as a Collaborative Learning in Placement Practice Champion (CLIPP) at RCHT, as well as recognising her as the first student to have received the Trust’s ‘Learning from Excellence' award. The award also praised her keenness to complete the training to volunteer with the COVID-19 vaccination clinics.

Ali said: 

“I was really proud to win at the Cornwall Apprenticeship Awards, though it came as a big surprise I’m really grateful to RCHT for supporting my degree apprenticeship, as my whole learning experience so far has been amazing. The students, lecturers and placement teams I’ve worked with have all been so supportive, and I can’t wait to qualify this year.”

“This is honestly the most amazing thing I’ve ever done. To think I’ll have a degree decades after leaving school is something I’m immensely proud of.”

Debbie Coles is a nursing degree apprentice from Exeter studying at the University of Plymouth’s Exeter School of Nursing. Joining the NHS in 2003, she worked her way up through diplomas and, after 10 years as an assistant practitioner, applied for the registered nurse degree apprenticeship via Royal Devon and Exeter NHS Foundation Trust. Never believing she’d get in, she’s now just months away from graduating.

Debbie Coles National Apprenticeship Week

“I’d completed a higher national diploma during my time in the NHS,” 

Debbie said. 

“And I saw the apprenticeship opportunity on the hospital website. I thought, ‘I’m too old for this, who would want me? I’m not even sure I am capable’ and the deadline was quite tight too, so I didn’t expect to get in. But I was ecstatic to be accepted.

“My previous qualifications meant I started the degree in year two, and being subject to various national COVID-19 restrictions at the time, the majority of teaching was online. I quickly had to learn how to use video calls and various other resources on top of utilising study skills. Thankfully I was well supported and I’ve been pleasantly surprised at the academic results I’ve been able to achieve. I’m definitely more of a critical thinker than I realised!”

With placements a key part of the degree, Debbie has experienced community nursing, working on an endocrine ward, and mental health unit.

“Everything has been completely eye-opening,” 

she said. 

“You have an idea of what you think something will be, and it’s rarely the case. The people I’ve met and learnt from, patients and staff alike, have been inspiring.

“Royal Devon and Exeter NHS Foundation Trust and the University of Plymouth have been so supportive, and I’ve had some really impactful experiences. This is honestly the most amazing thing I’ve ever done. To think I’ll have a degree decades after leaving school is something I’m immensely proud of. I know I’ve got a few months left before graduating but with my work ethic and experience, I’ll do it. I’m lucky enough to have already secured a job in day surgery at Royal Devon and Exeter’s Heavitree Hospital, and I can’t wait to get started.”

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