One thing the general election has shown is just how far the Apprenticeship Levy has come in such a short time.
Introduced by the Conservative Government in 2017 and initially viewed with some scepticism by employers, it has gone on to be arguably one of the more successful policies of the last decade and was heavily committed to by all the main parties in their election manifestos. Apprenticeships have come back from the wilderness as employers and students appreciate their huge ability to gain practical qualifications that meet real skills needs, with students earning while they learn and contributing to increased productivity so vital to our future economic success.
What makes an apprentice?
Apprentice students are a very committed cohort who are super-fuelled to succeed. Their academic and workplace learning act as a virtuous circle – in real time, they can apply their work experience to the classroom and their classroom experience to work. Crucially, apprenticeships now go all the way from GCSE equivalent up to degree or even masters level in high skills areas, meaning apprenticeship pathways no longer stop short or limit opportunity to progress to the highest level in their field.
Degree and Masters level Apprenticeships are growing far faster, proportionally, than any other level of apprenticeship – with apprenticeship starts nationally more than doubling between 2017-18 and 2018-19 to around 23,000. Degree Apprenticeships are now vital to recruitment and training for our critical public services such as the Police and NHS. UWE currently has over one thousand Degree Apprentices serving high tech manufacturing and engineering, the NHS and Police, the built environment and leadership and management across all sectors of the economy.
Will the Levy go dry?
But the success of the Levy will inevitably mean pressure on funding – especially now it is at risk of being over-subscribed. Which is why I welcome Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s apparent desire to review its structure and model – the Conservative’s 2019 manifesto says (in the context of investment in skills) that they will “look at how we can improve the working of the Levy”.
I think we could be much bolder in the way the £2.6bn (in 2019-20) pot from which apprenticeships are funded is administered. The fact that it was admitted last year that the original Government target of 3m new apprenticeships by 2020 was not going to happen to me isn’t a sign of failure. The sign from employers and the market is that they want high level skills and qualifications as this is where the economy’s skills gaps lie. We need to be focused not on quantity but on quality.
Our departure from the EU leaves us with an even more critical skills gap across all sectors. If the budget is limited we may need to prioritise those sectors that are in line with the Industrial Strategy and can help us compete for exports and inward investment in a global economy.
It’s about the economy
So, engineering, digital solutions and technology, construction, health sciences nursing and police; all higher level courses that, as they are successful and grow, will require more funding, and should be a priority. Why? Because these sectors are exactly where we have critical economic or social needs and are going to feel the strain in the future.
The Apprenticeship Levy is undoubtedly a national success story. As it becomes over-subscribed the Government needs to double down on its investment. After many years of tinkering and policy change in vocational education, the Apprenticeship Levy is truly putting vocational learning on a par with academic by creating clear vocational pathways up to degree and postgraduate level and embedding a culture of lifelong learning in the workplace. It is vital that we now invest in fulfilling the demand coming from employers for higher level and Degree Apprenticeships and don’t cut apprenticeships off at the knees.