Twenty students at Queen’s University Belfast have made history as the first in Northern Ireland to start an innovative new technology course designed by PwC to improve social mobility and inclusion and build digital skills.
The professional services firm held a ceremony with the university today [Tuesday 16 October] where its PwC Chief People Officer Laura Hinton, described the students as ‘the future of the firm’.
PwC’s technology degree apprenticeship is a fully-funded four year university programme that combines traditional qualifications with the advantage of also having a job with the UK’s leading graduate employer.
Across the UK, five universities - Queen’s Belfast, Leeds, Birmingham, St Andrews and Edinburgh - are offering the course, with a total of 111 students in this first cohort. In selecting students, advancing diversity is a key goal; in Belfast, a quarter of the group are female, well above the 16.5% national average for women participating on computer science programmes.
And for Azhar Hussain, the course has transformed his life. Originally from Enniskillen, at the age of 16, he travelled to Pakistan to prepare to study medicine, as third-level education was more affordable in his parents’ home country. However just before he was due to sit his A-levels, he was diagnosed with cancer in his right leg and returned to Northern Ireland for treatment. He chose to have his leg amputated to reduce the risk of the cancer returning and almost a year after being diagnosed, Azhar received the all-clear.
Thanks to help from Clic Sargent -the children’s cancer charity -Azhar found out how to take his A-levels in one year at Belfast Metropolitan College. By this time, after having had first-hand knowledge of the pressures facing junior doctors, he decided medicine wasn’t what he wanted to do and the charity told him about the tech degree apprenticeships.
“It seemed like a dream come true – there are no university fees, you get a salary throughout the programme, your placements are already set up and you already have a job at the end without ever having to do another interview.
“The process was a bit nerve-wracking. I judged myself against the other candidates – wondering if they were better than me because they’d done traditional A-Levels. When I heard I had got in, those fears evaporated. I felt like I had made it.
“I am excited about the future now. It’s funny how life works out. Had I been in Pakistan I would be studying medicine and paying fees – but now I’m studying something I am really passionate about at Queen’s which is great, and I’m getting all of this free from student debt.
“When I explain what the apprenticeship is all about to the other students, they just can’t believe it.”
Laura Hinton, PwC’s Chief People Officer, said:
“We want to employ the most talented people and the more routes we have into our profession, the more successful we will be in reaching them.
“Azhar's story is inspirational and we're delighted that our apprenticeship is giving him the support and future opportunities he needs to continue his education. Our tech degree apprenticeships will prepare Azhar and others like him for the changing world of work and to equip them with the digital skills which are in high-demand from businesses.
"There's rightly a lot of talk about the technology skills gap, the need to build those skills across the UK, and for more diversity in the sector.
“Our tech degree apprenticeships are about taking action to make this happen. They build on a number of steps we've taken including offering paid internships, extending our schools outreach, and our TechSheCan charter to increase the number of women in technology roles.”