It’s time for government to stop the mixed messages on degree apprenticeships

When I was CEO at the National Apprenticeship Service (NAS), my first minister for apprenticeships was John Hayes.

He told us that government actions to develop and expand higher apprenticeships up to degree level would prove to be one of the most important aspects of their legacy. I suspect that many people in higher education would have agreed then – I was certainly one of them.

So it feels strange to note that the future of degree apprenticeships seems to be a current topic of anxiety for the HE sector – as a result of mixed messages from government and its supporting bodies.

Gathering storm clouds

At the start of the year everything seemed rosy. A growing number of HEIs were embracing degree apprenticeships with increasing vigour and enthusiasm. Conferences on the subject were sold out. Degree Apprenticeship Development Fund applications were seriously oversubscribed. Employers were developing standards for higher level apprenticeships in impressive numbers.

Fast forward less than six months and much seems to have changed. Many people in the HE sector are openly worried about the future of degree apprenticeships. There are suddenly concerns about the number of higher and degree apprenticeships, delivery models, and funding. This seems to have been fuelled largely by statements from the Institute for Apprenticeships (IfA), though Ofsted’s references to Train to Gain and re-badging aren’t helping. Both bodies are primarily concerned with quality but often appear to need reminding about the bigger picture.

A meaningful offer

If the country is to achieve the transformation in apprenticeships that has historically been an ambition shared across the political spectrum, it needs to take apprenticeships “up market”. We need to ensure they are attractive and relevant to all young people. We need to convince parents that apprenticeships are not only for other people’s children.

I recall many meetings with young people and their parents to discuss apprenticeships where the possibility of experiencing higher education at some point was a key selling point. With so many young people going to university at eighteen, signing up children with ability for anything else often seemed to verge on child cruelty in parents’ eyes. It meant bumping them off a comfortable conveyor belt taking them and their friends to college or university.

Employer needs

We also need apprenticeships to be helping tackle the high-level skills shortages that are holding back productivity increases. Employer surveys have told us consistently that this is critical for them, and government has supposedly transformed the skills system to make it employer-led.

Expanding higher and degree apprenticeships should not be at the expense of lower-level apprenticeships, as they provide vital feeder skills and routes, as well as sustaining millions of people in employment. The ambition is to expand numbers and improve quality at all apprenticeship levels, enabling people to move up the skills ladder and fulfil their potential. Employer levy money is sufficient to cover the total bill now and for the foreseeable future.

Engaging higher education properly

It has taken time to gain the trust of universities to invest in degree apprenticeships and to make the financial commitment needed. They are rightly wary of changing business models even though government signals about degree apprenticeships have been positive for more than five years. The worry is in the longer-term detail and adequacy of funding bands, as that would potentially destroy the financial viability of plans. Hence the sensitivity to the planned review of rates and bands.

For some universities, this has involved a big cultural change – to a point where meeting employer skill needs – alongside the needs of teaching students and conducting research – feels a natural fit. With the country’s stubborn skills and productivity challenges, this new positioning by many universities, and the strengthened relationships with employers, are something to be celebrated and safeguarded.

We need better managers

I also find it strange to see suspicions about the number of management degree apprenticeships. There are an awful lot of managers in businesses and evidence of a sizeable training need. You might think again that action to address this by employers would be welcome.

My sense is that organisations like the Chartered Management Institute (CMI) have been fast out of the blocks and are efficiently harnessing current training arrangements in order to tap into employer demand. In other situations we might describe this as responsive and agile. Rather than cast doubt on the expansion, we might think about any lessons learned that could help other much-needed skills training to expand.

Focusing on (and funding for) quality

That said, it is important that the HE sector doesn’t automatically respond to questions about its provision by assuming others are out to get them or are ignorant about HE. We have a responsibility to engage constructively and with transparency. We also have a responsibility to ensure that growth does not come at the expense of quality. Indeed only if we are rigorous in delivering quality ourselves will there be any long-term prospects of growth and a secure role for the HE sector.

The IfA is still a relatively new body under new leadership. I am sure there is a determination to get quality and funding right. If there are any degree apprenticeships that are widely regarded as “cash cows” then let’s make sure that they don’t undermine confidence in funding all those other degree apprenticeships where every penny is earned and needed.

There does need to be a better understanding of the true costs of delivering degree apprenticeships of quality. Higher Education brings much to the apprenticeship family and brand, including a strong off-the-job element. Degree apprenticeship employers in my experience are very keen to embrace this quality element, and see it as an essential part of the degree apprenticeship package.

Promoting the degree apprenticeship brand

At this critical time, government should be alert to all negative messages in respect of degree apprenticeships. This should be a vital period of growth as universities gain confidence in delivery and more standards become available. This should be the key period for lift-off.

The government should be sorting out issues such as ensuring the voice of higher education is clearly heard in support of employers, who must of course lead the processes of standard setting and quality assurance. How difficult can that be to resolve? It will do wonders for relationships, lending confidence rather than worrying people unnecessarily.

Similarly, this is not the time to adopt a penny-pinching attitude towards funding. There is a clear relationship between funding and quality. Treasury are planning to bank billions of employer money intended for increasing investment in skills. At least that was the stated rationale at the time for introducing the levy.

Government should be backing those many vice chancellors who have seen the benefits for employers and for the country’s stock of higher skills from embracing higher and degree apprenticeships.

Let’s ensure the levy surplus enables everyone to concentrate on quality and the continued growth of degree apprenticeships. The engagement of HE and its teaching skills is vital. No mixed messages please from government, and no overly-defensive responses from its agencies to valid challenges. We have a great case to make as a sector. Let’s make it, clearly and persuasively to government and ensure the higher skills apprenticeship legacy is truly delivered.

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