Growth in degree apprenticeships mustn’t endanger social mobility

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Let’s start by clearing up any misunderstanding. In representing the providers (and an increasing number of HEIs) who deliver three out of every four apprenticeships in England, the Association of Employment and Learning Providers (AELP) is not against degree apprenticeships at all. As an organisation that has always championed apprenticeships for all ages, all sectors, and all levels of learning, we believe that degree apprenticeships are a welcome addition to the skills landscape. They  can make a positive impact in tackling Britain’s productivity challenges and support economic growth across the country.

Apprenticeships are also rightly regarded as a driver of social mobility and it is my recent comments on whether the levy reforms are acting against that agenda which appears to have aroused some controversy in HE circles. AELP has been accused of over-egging the argument by saying that at least half of the £2.5bn levy pot in England will be taken up by higher and degree apprenticeships, when the current number of degree apprenticeships is relatively low. We include L4-7 higher apprenticeships (e.g. management level), as well as L6-7 degree level apprenticeships in our prediction.

However, if two of the present barriers to growth are removed, then the 90+ universities and business schools currently on the government’s register of apprenticeship providers may well enjoy watching the floodgates open. And need I mention such apprenticeships involve neither student debt nor interventions about value for money.  

Removing barriers to degree apprenticeship growth

The first barrier to growth has been the hitherto painfully slow process for apprenticeship standards and assessment approval. We know that the skills minister Anne Milton has recently given the Institute for Apprenticeships (IfA) the order to ‘get on with it’, so that more high-level standards are on offer. Second, universities have only benefited from the custom of large levy-paying employers since May. From January, they should also have access to non-levy funding to help meet the needs of SMEs, so we should expect the growth curve to become steeper.

Employers understandably want to use the levy to enable a blended approach that suits their needs, including graduate and degree apprentice recruitment. If the police, teaching and nursing professions adopt a 50:50 approach, then they would account for £400m of the levy spend every year on their own, and this is before we factor in management apprenticeships. This isn’t passing judgement on employer behaviour but we have to recognise that the whole of the apprenticeship programme, which is funded entirely from the levy, has a limited budget and there has to be a balance in meeting needs at lower levels, especially among SMEs. Remember that levy payers have first dibs on using the levy, so if there is no money left over, SMEs will be starved of funding and some areas of the country could become apprenticeship deserts.

Social mobility means fair funding

I challenged one HE audience recently to imagine sitting in a care home with no staff to look after them because there are no longer any Level 2 care apprenticeships and fewer apprenticeships for the ‘other 50%’ of young people. This latter group were a pressing concern for politicians in the fringe meetings I attended at the party conferences this year. A fair approach to social mobility means understanding where the funding really needs to be targeted, while ensuring that employers invest adequately in their staff and individuals invest in their own development as well. It is not about stopping higher level apprenticeships, it is about who pays for them. If government thinks it should contribute, it needs to channel some HE funding into apprenticeships and away from other delivery. While moving from a 3 to 4 bedroom house is a form of social mobility, is this what we should be targeting scarce resources at? If we get the balance right, then everyone moves up the ladder. 

More universities are planning to invest significant resources to run degree apprenticeship programmes, in anticipation of the floodgates being opened. But a note of caution needs to be sounded. These programmes currently tend to attract the top band of funding but the IfA is now reviewing the rates, which may lessen their viability.  

Justine Greening’s new plan for social mobility announced the expansion of degree apprenticeships in STEM subjects and disadvantaged areas.  Let’s hope that the levy proceeds, and any additional government funding, are able to meet the aspirations of those young people who want to do an apprenticeship wherever they live and at whatever level.

 

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