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Keeping the sinking apprenticeship afloat

Johnny Rich, CEO of the Engineering Professors’ Council and of Push, explains what’s scuppered government apprenticeship policy, how to stop it from going under, and how universities can be the lifeboats.
This article is more than 5 years old

Johnny Rich is Chief Executive of outreach organisation Push, and of the Engineering Professors’ Council, and a consultant.

Yesterday, the latest official apprenticeship figures were published.

The news is not good: a 40% slide on last year’s stats, consistent with stubbornly low numbers since the introduction of the apprenticeship levy just over a year ago.

This is not how it was supposed to be. In 2015, the government had set itself a target of 3 million people starting apprenticeships by 2020 (and felt so confident about this, it reiterated the commitment in its 2017 election manifesto).  As the date gets closer, that target is drifting ever further out of reach.

Gerry Berragan, the chief executive of the Institute for Apprenticeships & Technical Education (IfATE) – the body which oversees apprenticeships – has said this is likely to be a temporary blip and that the unspent apprenticeship levies – reportedly £1.28bn – will be needed in future years to meet the demand when eventually (for some unspecified reason) the floodgates will open.

Even if his wishful thinking somehow comes true, it’s worth remembering that to many people even the current apprenticeship figures are inflated by a significant amount of upskilling of existing employees. While such upskilling may be a good thing, it’s hardly the focus the government had in mind when creating the levy. David Cameron made it clear in a speech to the CBI Conference in 2015 that he saw apprenticeships as principally a post-school option.  More recently, the current Skills Minister Ann Miton has referred to them as a challenge to university as the default post-school pathway.

Furthermore, a lot of apprenticeships are not new opportunities. Instead, as predicted, many employers have simply used them to replace roles that were previously offered as school-leaver schemes or other training.

What’s going wrong?

It’s pretty clear this is a policy that’s heading off track faster than an East Coast rail franchise. Some pretty radical steps are needed to make apprenticeships considerably more attractive to both employers and learners, steps that need to surmount some big barriers:

  1. The term “apprentice” is bad branding. It is not aspirational. You do an apprenticeship. You get a degree. One is to be endured, while the other is to be achieved. Meanwhile, the government either isn’t clear itself or is failing to be clear about what apprenticeships are.  Are they like a course or a qualification? Or are they a job in which you are paid to spend part of your time studying? The political answer appears to be that it’s a job, but a lot of the language used implies it’s more like a qualification.
  2. Apprenticeships appear to be far too complicated for most people to get their head around without deliberate enquiry, whether they’re learners, parents or employers – particularly small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs). Complexity is a massive barrier to wanting to find out more, even if an opportunity might on the face of it appear decent or even good.
  3. This goes back to the thorny issue of poor careers education. Too much responsibility for careers education, information, advice and guidance (CEIAG) is put on teachers – who may be well placed to deliver it, but who are ill-equipped to do so, with a growing list of other more urgent pressures, and who often gravitate to promoting options they understand best from personal experience.
  4. There are lots of problems in the development of apprenticeship standards – the IfATE-approved recipe for an apprenticeship at a given level in a specific area. The government’s policy was that standards should be “employer-led”, but instead many end up (large) employer-dominated, failing to take account of the needs of apprentices to have careers, not just jobs. For example, standards are developed by “trailblazer” groups of large employers who, for perfectly well-intentioned reasons, come up with a standard that suits their business needs, but which doesn’t suit those of many employers outside that group (particularly SMEs), or even their sector at large. Consequently, the apprentice may find their qualification doesn’t give them the career mobility they’d hoped, because, for example, the trailblazer saw no need to embed professional accreditation. Meanwhile, other employers, which might want to create their own standard to meet their needs, find that the territory is occupied: to avoid a free-for-all, only one standard is allowed in each area.
  5. Too much is still far too unclear, especially for the learning providers involved. For example, how are degree apprenticeships to be evaluated? Should they be included in TEF? There may be an answer to this, but DfE was unable to tell me.

I could go on at length listing the problems of apprenticeships and why, for the time being, it’s a failing policy. It was one of the most promising education and skills initiatives of the coalition government, but, sadly, in its delivery, it has been treated like Dartington Crystal sent by 2nd class post.

What to do about it?

With £1.28bn sitting unused, there’s clearly a case for being more flexible in the use of the apprenticeship levy funds. The government should look to its goals and not the letter of the policy. What was the levy intended to do if not raise skills, especially those of young people, and to create pathways into work? I’d suggest there are ways of evolving the policy to achieve those goals. To name but four deserving opportunities:

  1. We should allow employers to use a proportion – say 10% – of their levy funds for certain forms of promotion of their apprenticeships. For example, the government’s long-awaited Careers Strategy (and indeed its whole approach to careers over the past few years) places a dumpster-load of emphasis on employers engaging in schools. There are many barriers to employers actually undertaking the sort of outreach described, but such barriers tend to melt under the heat of sufficient funds.
  2. In 2010, the government axed c.£450m a year from various initiatives supporting CEIAG (such as Connexions, Next Steps and Aim Higher). A couple of hundred million of unspent levy funds could be redirected into a central fund for ensuring independent, impartial, personalised, and expert careers practice happens in all schools and colleges – most of which are facing budget cuts. Some may see this as a raid on the hypothecated funds of the apprenticeship levy, but there’s a good logic to it. Properly funding CEIAG is a direct investment in the success of apprenticeships if it means the benefits of apprenticeships can be appropriately conveyed to the target audience.
  3. We need to find a way to pump prime the development of apprenticeships. While this new way of training and educating is in development, the cost of getting it right is likely to be higher than it will be once we know what “good” looks like. We need to fund the cost of experimenting, of failing, of succeeding, of sharing best practice, and of improving – in order to evolve an apprenticeship system that is effective and popular. However, the £27k cap on levy funding (e.g. for engineering degree apprenticeships) is a poor incentive for universities to work with employers to develop them. That compares with £37k in fees (over a 4-year course) and for an apprenticeship, the fee also has to cover the cost of the end-point assessment (EPA). Moreover, there’s a high risk attached to the £27k because the learning provider only gets some of it retrospectively and only if the EPA is passed. If the apprentice drops out (and dropouts are likely to be higher than for traditional students doing degrees), you may get nothing. Assuming Berragan is right and the unspent apprenticeship levy pot won’t always be overflowing, it makes sense to use the overflow in these early years to underwrite the higher costs and risks.
  4. With our eyes on the higher prize rather than simply being stubborn about trying to get apprenticeship policy theory to work in practice, levy funds should be liberated for a far wider range of training and education – shorter courses, sponsored courses, hop-on-hop-off courses, and so on. This should help ensure more part-time and mature learners are engaged.

An opportunity for universities

This iceberg-struck policy may yet be salvageable though, and in the process, there’s a significant opportunity for higher education institutions (HEIs) to serve their own ends and – more importantly – improve degree apprenticeships for learners.

Degree apprenticeships are the one level of apprenticeship where the numbers are rising not falling, albeit not at anything like the rate needed to meet the targets. I suspect that’s because the benefits of the proposition to employers and learners are far more compelling.

For employers, they offer the prospect of delivering more job-ready graduates, with greater loyalty, at potentially lower cost than an equivalent school-leaver scheme.

For school-leavers, a degree apprenticeship offers (potentially equivalent) cachet to a degree along with the certainty of a job after graduation, and all without the debt of regular student life. Meanwhile, the complexity of understanding what an apprenticeship is, let alone finding and securing one, is partly offset by the fact that 18+ school-leavers are having to make complex choices anyway.

Under such circumstances, you’d be forgiven for asking why more employers and school-leavers aren’t beating a path to the degree apprenticeship door. The answer, I suspect, again lies in the marketing. It’s not enough to have a good product. You need a route to market.

Employers don’t find it easy to reach into schools to sell their opportunities. Trying to tout an apprenticeship opportunity to the one or two school-leavers in a school who might be (a) aware and interested in a degree apprenticeship and (b) interested in yours – is not a cost-effective undertaking for an employer, especially when the exercise needs to be repeated across tens of schools in the locality, hundreds in the region, or thousands nationwide.

Universities, however, already have ways to get messages to large numbers of school-leavers: open days, UCAS conventions, school outreach, prospectuses, websites, and even the career talks delivered by teachers and advisers from about Year 9 (13+ years) onwards. There’s an opportunity to use those pathways to offer an alternative to those students who may be put-off by the prospect of debt, the fear of job insecurity, or simply the feeling that student life isn’t for them.

To use the parlance of commerce, HEIs are in an excellent position to generate leads for employers. They can even do a primary sift of candidates and “sell” the most suited on to the most fitting employer, playing the role of broker.

This would also help SMEs to enter the degree apprenticeship game if universities offered them an off-the-shelf package with apprentices ready to go. Working with a consortium of local businesses would even allow greater variety for the apprentice and spread the burden for the employers.

HEIs have become used to thinking of the student as their consumer, but, when it comes to degree apprenticeships, it’s the employer they’re selling to and learners are the product. Of course, all this talk of “consumers” is only half the story – everyone needs to behave like a partner in the learning process – but, in terms of opportunities, HEIs should recognise that as apprenticeships continue to sink, they are the ones holding the lifebelts.

The Engineering Professors’ Council (EPC) has been working on a policy paper on engineering degree apprenticeships, which will be published in the next few months.

3 responses to “Keeping the sinking apprenticeship afloat

  1. Very interesting article Johnny; and look forward to seeing the policy paper on engineering degree apprenticeships. In the meantime, there’s some interesting examples in Scotland of HEI / FE collaboration with employers to design skills-based programmes to meet employer needs – perhaps the levy could be used more flexibly in England to support something similar?

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