Apprenticeships for our own children

There is a predictable pattern to ministerial enthusiasm for apprenticeships.

Minister X goes on a fact-finding trip to Europe, returning full of zeal about vocational education, as if they can turn the UK into Germany overnight. Minister Y touts apprenticeships as the solution to our economic and social ills, while quietly cutting further education and skills funding to the bone. And minister Z pays lip service to creating parity of esteem between skills and so-called academic education – despite, deep down, believing that technical education is really for other people’s kids.

Wake up

So today’s Education Select Committee report is a wake-up call and must-read in Westminster and Whitehall. Despite living in fragmented political times, there is near universal consensus about getting apprenticeships policy working once and for all.  Yet across the board, there is real frustration about the number of urgent fixes required.

So the report is right to demand that degree apprenticeships be made a national “strategic priority” to create a clear progression from entry-level apprenticeships up to university level. And its strongest argument is for technical education as a driver of social justice given, as the OfS reported last week, far too many potential apprentices are cut off from the best opportunities.

But the Select Committee is disappointingly tame on tackling significant issues raised repeatedly throughout the inquiry by us at University Alliance and many others. It fails to fully locate degree or higher apprenticeships within the wider HE technical and vocational ecosystem. Nor does it link them to the urgent need to tackle the collapse in part-time and adult student numbers.

So what can be done?

Wagging the dog

First, instead of hinting at it, it’s time to kill off the hopelessly optimistic government target of three million apprenticeship starts by 2020. There is an old management adage that if it can’t be measured, it won’t be done. But there’s an older political adage that it’s a mistake to pluck a random number out of the air without doing the basic maths – and then stick dogmatically to it.

Bad policy targets create perverse outcomes. As a result, ministers have turned a convenient blind eye to employers rebadging other training schemes simply to access the levy cash available. They remain fixated on tactical fixes to hit the target, rather than a coherent strategy to create top-notch, high-value new apprenticeships. The tail has been wagging the dog for too long – quantity can never be put over quality.

Slashing red tape

The inquiry is too generous about the Institute for Apprenticeships’ (IfA) performance. It’s fair enough to argue it needs time to unpick the failures of successive governments. But there remains a clear disconnect between the IfA and the alphabet soup of other agencies involved.

No-one wants a free-for-all, but there are signs of a chilling effect created by IfA’s painfully slow start in approving apprenticeship standards. Why will providers and employers invest in programme development when there is a bottleneck in sign-offs? What is the excuse for the IfA’s inconsistent technical advice, lack of feedback or clarity about how judgements are made? And when it comes to higher education, why does the system insist on duplicating so much of existing monitoring and quality assurance regimes?

The IfA has at most 12 months to pull its socks up, or be scrapped as the Lords Economic Affairs Committee has called for. The IfA says it has already listened and responded to concerns – but the proof of the pudding is in the eating.

Broadening the scope

Too often apprenticeships are signed off as standalone programmes, which may meet the needs of a large employer but not a wider industry or profession. Apprenticeships must do more than equip people for one specific job at one specific moment. It has to set people up for a working life which enables them to cut across different industries, professions and regions.

So we need to sweep away the resistance to embedding existing qualifications within degree and higher apprenticeship standards. And across all apprenticeship levels, we must push harder for credit transfer, work or study-based modules and clearer progression to degree or masters-level achievement.

That’s why University Alliance and others have argued hard for apprenticeships to be co-branded with a relevant qualification – for example, a degree within a level six apprenticeship or a foundation degree as part of a level five or level four programme.

Busting open the levy

The select committee does recommend creating a Social Justice Fund using levy surplus – which could dovetail nicely with baseline access investment, as well as new OfS funding streams like the Degree Apprenticeship Development Fund. And it’s right to call on the IfA to raise the top funding bands where required so providers can meet the full cost of delivery.

We are already seeing cuts to rates in a series of degree and masters-level apprenticeships as a way of keeping the cost of the overall system down. The margins are already small for providers running apprenticeships on a £27,000 levy, so anything which further reduces the financial viability of their plans are potentially disastrous – risking leaving ‘cold spots’ in specific professions, sectors or regions.

But the committee could have been bolder on preventing this by opening up funding for a wide spectrum of skills training, courses and qualifications. The levy is not a sacred, inviolable policy. It is meant to oil the cogs of the whole system. If it is not targeting investment where it is needed, change it.

And whilst the Chancellor’s announcement last week to allow the levy to be extended down supply chains was welcome on paper, it won’t matter if employers don’t know how to access or use it. Poorly understood policy is always poor policy. There is a risk of organisations simply accepting the levy as business cost, rather than a long-term investment.

Looking in the mirror

These criticisms of government don’t mean we should ignore the wider challenge to higher education itself. Too many universities up to now have seen degree or higher-level apprenticeships as a short-term cash cow or a nice-to-have bolt-on – but they should be a core part of what we stand for collectively.

University Alliance includes some of the biggest and best-established providers in the UK – as well as the UK’s biggest part-time and adult university. Yet across the sector there remain big internal barriers within universities to commit to apprenticeships. I speak to many colleagues who still need to fight to get their boards to make the financial commitment – perhaps because of a misplaced sense of an institution’s strengths, or a reluctance to let employers lead on course content, standards and quality assurance.

It reflects the need for deeper systemic and culture change so that the driving destination of the entire education system doesn’t default to the three-year undergraduate degree. We can and should be bolder in growing the market for apprenticeships and taking much more responsibility for their national success.

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