Post-compulsory education will become more flexible with the introduction of the lifelong loan entitlement (LLE) from 2025.
The ambition of the LLE is without doubt most welcome and is a great prospect to provide students with opportunities to learn more flexibly by affording them the chance to study shorter courses. This is on the condition that these courses provide credits that can be accumulated to a full award – if/when a student so wishes or needs to complete further credits at a later date.
Higher Technical Qualifications (HTQs) and some other limited recognised level 4/5 awards will be the first collection of courses funded through the LLE. HTQs like the LLE are likewise a welcome ambition to increase the currency of technical courses, provide flexibility, and to fill the significant skills gaps that exist predominantly at levels 4 and 5 – the hope being this will increase productivity and provide employers with access to high-level skills.
Unlike the LLE and HTQs, the apprenticeship levy still remains inflexible and poorly funded, especially when you compare the levels of funding for higher and degree apprenticeships against standard university fees for undergraduate courses (which are also not adequately funded).
There have been numerous calls, including from businesses and the Labour Party to increase flexibility with the apprenticeship levy in response to employers’ need to access high-level skills training on a demand-led basis. Employees that use an apprenticeship route to acquire new skills can find themselves having to study elements of an apprenticeship programme that does not directly give them those skills. In some cases, they may have to wait several years to achieve an apprenticeship. Arguably, one of the reasons why apprenticeship completion rates are so low is because employees withdraw from an apprenticeship once they have acquired the skills they needed from it.
The government has increased access to apprenticeships through various incentives, such as improved IAG, a wider range of apprenticeships, and support for those with specific needs. It is clear that government policy is to increase the demand for higher and degree apprenticeships, supported by a consistent narrative that applauds them as a great alternative to university courses. However, the incentives do not go far enough.
Push the flexibility button
The government now needs to rethink the funding bands aligned to apprenticeships to make them more affordable for providers to offer, and they need to hit the flexibility button on the apprenticeship levy and shape it around the ambitions of the LLE. The levy needs to be more like the LLE and provide knowledge, skills, and behaviours accumulation that can lead to a full apprenticeship award if/when an employee wants to continue their apprenticeship journey – thus allowing apprentices to step on and off an apprenticeship programme accordingly.
Levy funded modules and awards from HTQs could be part of the solution – the very nature of HTQs is to provide modularity, and flexibility to acquire knowledge, skills, and behaviours – after all HTQs are aligned to the same occupational standards as apprenticeships and are indeed within the remit of the Institute for Apprenticeships and Technical Education – so it is not drifting too far away from what the levy was intended for.
If the government wants to increase access to skills, and the prestigiousness of HTQs then this is the opportunity to do it. With exception to the cost of administrative burden, this will not cost the government any more money because the levy funding used to pay for modules of an HTQ course can later be offset from the cost if/when the same employee decides to complete the full apprenticeship standard.
Without this approach being taken, I don’t believe that employers will fully engage with HTQs, as it is not reasonable for a HTQ to be funded by an employer outside of the apprenticeship levy, nor is it reasonable to expect an employee to take out a loan to acquire skills that are required for a job role.
I am not asking for a free-for-all with the levy – just for it to be extended to HTQs for existing employees. This will no doubt also have a positive impact on the uptake of HTQs (which is very much needed) for those that want to study these on a full/part time basis through the LLE – because employer demand of HTQs will demonstrate that they do indeed have currency in the labour market.