In England, vocational training has, for centuries, been regarded as inferior to academic attainment. While there has been a renaissance in apprenticeship starts in recent years – there were 491,000 in 2016-17 – 53 per cent of those were at level 2 (GCSE equivalent). A further 40 per cent were at level 3 (A level equivalent), reflecting a dominance of low-level job roles – health and social care, business administration and customer service.
This may, however, be about to change. Following a review in 2012 by the entrepreneur Doug Richard, the government decided that employers should lead on the development of apprenticeships. They were supported to come together to develop standards for defined occupations.
Then, last April, the government introduced an “apprenticeship levy” of 0.5 per cent of the payroll, which all employers with a payroll of more than £3 million are obliged to pay. They can spend the levy on the apprenticeships that their organisations need in order to develop the performance of new and existing employees. In practice, they have often focused their attention on higher-level skills, prompting substantial interest in the “degree apprenticeships” unveiled by David Cameron in 2015.
The idea of these is that an individual in full-time employment follows a degree programme designed by employers and higher education institutions to develop the knowledge, skills and behaviours needed to be competent in a particular occupation. When students complete it, they undertake an “end point assessment” – which, depending on the degree apprenticeship in question, can be delivered by the university as part of the degree, or by a separate organisation charged with testing occupational competence. So far, employers have developed degree apprenticeships in many occupations, including policing, nursing, teaching, management, engineering and digital professions.
To deliver apprenticeship training, providers need to be approved by the government’s Education and Skills Funding Agency (ESFA), and about 100 higher education institutions have successfully applied. To deliver to smaller, non-levy-paying employers, providers also need to have secured funding from the agency.
For individuals, degree apprenticeships are potentially a great choice, offering a job and salary from day one – and no student loans. For employers, they offer an ideal solution to developing the occupational competence of both new and existing employees. And for universities, they offer a significant new way to engage with employers, widen access and develop a new income stream.
But employers’ shift in focus towards degree-level apprenticeships entails that the historic training provider base is not fit for purpose. Neither have the ESFA’s systems been appropriate to engage the new providers needed. This is because, despite its name, the agency is, in essence, a schools and further education funding organisation. It has little understanding of higher education and has typically taken a “further education first” and “not invented here” approach to the implementation of the apprenticeship reforms. Virtually all its apprenticeship systems – procurement, contracting, data reporting, customer satisfaction measures – are based on further education, and act as a considerable barrier to universities.
Standards are overseen by a new body, the Institute for Apprenticeships (IfA). However, this body also has a further education ethos. When it launched in April 2017, it had no university representation on its board, nor (again, like the ESFA) any senior managers whose specific focus is degree apprenticeships; this is despite employers' development of apprenticeship standards for occupations that require a degree to practise or whose recruiters specify their preference for one.
A second and even greater concern is a wobble in implementation. Apprenticeship policy is clear that employers are in the driving seat. Unfortunately, the IfA doesn’t quite seem to get this, suggesting that it may have to intervene if they spend too little of their levy on apprenticeships for 16- to 19-year-olds who do not want to stay on at school or college. This is just plain wrong. The levy was introduced to increase investment by employers in their workforce, and thereby increase productivity. It is not a “stealth tax” to fund low-level further education training provision for young people let down by the school system.
If the IfA hinders employers’ access to the apprenticeships that their organisations need, it could well lead to their spending less on workforce development: the precise opposite of the policy intent. Yes, there is a need to consider what provision is offered to young people who previously would have followed an intermediate apprenticeship in business administration and customer service, but this is not the answer. There are far better learning options for such people; existing traineeships or high-quality college-based programmes such as the government’s proposed new technical qualifications, known as T levels.
Both the ESFA and IfA need, in future, to work far more effectively with higher education. England’s world-class higher education sector has a track record in developing programmes with employers and professional, statutory and regulatory bodies to develop and accredit occupational competence. It is vital that this expertise is used if we are to ensure the future success of apprenticeships in general and degree apprenticeships in particular.
Adrian Anderson is chief executive of the University Vocational Awards Council, which has more than 60 university members drawn from all mission groups.