Skip to main content

Sheffield ‘turned down £10 milllion’ for apprenticeships

Written by: John Morgan
Published on: 15 Jul 2021

Victor Varconi (1896-1976) handing money to the lawyer in a scene from the film 'Chicago' as a metaphor for Sheffield ‘turned down £10 milllion’ for apprenticeships

Source: Getty

The University of Sheffield has been criticised for a supposed focus on “cultivating an elite brand”, after it emerged that the institution pulled a bid for £10 million funding from city region leaders to expand apprenticeship training.

The university withdrew from a bid to expand apprenticeships at its respected Advanced Manufacturing Research Centre, which has attracted Boeing and McLaren to open factories at its site on the Sheffield-Rotherham border, shortly after Koen Lamberts took over as vice-chancellor.

That decision came before current, related criticism of the university’s proposals to close its archaeology department. A recent report in local newspaper The Star quoted a student’s account of a meeting on the archaeology plans between staff, students and Gill Valentine, the university’s deputy vice-chancellor.

According to the student’s account, when it was put to Professor Valentine that the department should be allowed to drop its entry requirements to recruit more undergraduates, “her response was, ‘We need to protect our brand. If you shop at Marks & Spencers, and then Marks & Spencers brings in Aldi-level products, then people won’t want to shop with you any more’”.

Critics of the university’s leadership perceived similar factors at work in the earlier decision on AMRC apprenticeships.

Papers prepared for a meeting of the Sheffield City Region Local Enterprise Partnership (LEP) in November 2018 show a recommendation that the LEP board, which includes business leaders and city region mayor Dan Jarvis, approve 12 bids for Local Growth Fund money for “skills capital commissioning”. That included two University of Sheffield AMRC bids, one being for £10 million funding to extend the training centre that provides apprenticeships for workers in engineering firms.

Times Higher Education understands that firms would have provided £10 million match funding, taking total funding for the project to £20 million.

Yet when the LEP’s November board meeting took place, it was noted that two of the 12 bids – the AMRC ones – had been “withdrawn by the promoter”, according to minutes.

Professor Lamberts, who had taken over at Sheffield that month, was present at the meeting.

The AMRC training centre extension was needed because there are 700-800 applications each year for 250 places, according to the case presented to the LEP.

Keith Ridgway, founder of the AMRC, made a surprise exit from his post as its executive dean in October 2019, reportedly after plans to tighten the university’s control over it were initiated by Professor Lamberts, said to have been concerned about the potential risks posed to the university by an autonomous branch.

A spokesperson for Sheffield’s University and College Union branch said that the university “has always been well respected for its role as a ‘civic university’…With a new focus on cultivating an elite brand above all else, many staff fear that the current leadership has lost touch with the priorities of the university community at large and the wider city and region we serve.”

However, others in the university argued that the AMRC training centre expansion plan was withdrawn because it had not gone through the necessary approval via the university’s governance structures.

A Sheffield spokeswoman said that the university was “proud to offer excellent research-led teaching through its degree courses as well as high-quality vocational training and apprenticeships, including in manufacturing and nursing, which have a strong record of leading to jobs”.

She added that the AMRC training centre “has never been in a better position to support businesses in developing a skilled future workforce” and the university remained “open to further opportunities for expansion”.