Mixed fortunes and milestones for universities in apprenticeship delivery

In recent months, there has been mixed news for the university sector and its engagement with apprenticeships. At the end of last year the Education and Skills Funding Agency (ESFA), the government body responsible for funding apprenticeships in England, finally announced the outcome of its tendering exercise to allocate funding for non-levy paying employers.

Having previously abandoned an earlier attempt in 2017 at non-levy allocations, the news was long-awaited. For around 35 large universities in metropolitan areas planning to deliver a wide range of degree apprenticeship standards, the results were generally good. Not surprisingly such bids focused on the skills needs of the local and UK-wide economy and scored highly with strong evidence of employer demand.

Scaling up or scaling back?

There is, however, a significant problem which centres mainly but not exclusively, on smaller universities and particularly those outside core cities. Universities are, in almost every instance, new providers and many – especially those outside the main metropolitan areas – had relatively small but well-evidenced proposals for degree apprenticeship provision critical to meeting Local Enterprise Partnership skills priorities; think high level and high value-added occupations essential for business growth in the digital and engineering sectors and delivery of the Industrial Strategy’s core ambitions.

It is a problem that has arisen inevitably out of the ESFA procurement approach itself. A pro rata exercise resulted in universities with excellent proposals that were fully compliant and met or exceeded the criteria for quality failing to be allocated funding because their bids, some in excess of £500,000, were scaled back by the ESFA to below the minimum threshold of £200k.

It is depressing, if not distressing, to consider the inevitable impact of the ESFA scale-back process on the availability of degree apprenticeship provision going forward.

One of the biggest concerns is that it creates degree apprenticeship “cold spots” in localities where there is now no degree apprenticeship provision for the (typically) smaller employer. In all likelihood, these cold spots correlate with the very HE cold spots the government has through various initiatives been attempting to combat.

Initiatives such as the Degree Apprenticeship Development Fund, won by a number of HEIs that are now not funded for the delivery of such provision because of a questionable pro rata and scale back process. This has implications for both the government’s productivity and social mobility agendas and – in this one instance – the ESFA decision disadvantages the already disadvantaged.

It also undermines the growing link between university degrees and apprenticeships. With degree apprenticeships, universities and their partners are doing something special. Jointly we are challenging the whole notion of the academic and vocational divide and that apprenticeships are just a choice for other people’s children.

This should help promote the idea of apprenticeships at all levels. Unlike lower level apprenticeships, other providers cannot simply step in to deliver degree apprenticeship provision; which means that all providers are not the same and the substantial progress made by universities is being hampered if not slowed down by these outcomes.

The education committee inquiry

At the same time as the ESFA was making its procurement decision, the Education Committee launched an inquiry into the quality of apprenticeships and skills training. Disappointingly, politicians and government officials continue to look back on approaches to apprenticeship and skills provision rather than consider the positive impact of the new apprenticeship system on productivity and social mobility – and of course the role that universities are fulfilling in the fastest-growing and most innovative part of the apprenticeship market: degree apprenticeships.

However, this focus did not stop the chair, Robert Halfon from suggesting that universities who fail to offer degree apprenticeships should lose a significant part of their public funding.

To deliver apprenticeships in England, any provider of skills training must successfully apply to the ESFA’s Register of Apprenticeship Training Providers (RoATP). After three openings of the RoATP it was announced last month that more than 100 higher education providers from across all mission groups have successfully applied and are now able to deliver apprenticeships to levy paying employers initially, and all employers eventually.

The number includes the participation of Russell Group institutions – University of Cambridge now included – and this undeniably helps change the perception and standing of apprenticeships.

Degree apprenticeships, led by employer choice, have been and still are being developed in key public and private sector occupations: registered nurse, police constable, social worker, teacher, post-graduate engineer; in digital and technology occupations; and in leadership and management roles.

What is exciting is that higher education providers of all types and sizes have responded, and continue to respond, in an extremely positive way to the migration upwards in the skill level and professional occupational focus of apprenticeships.

Having over 100 higher education institutions engaged in delivering apprenticeships is a significant and important milestone. Which is why it is disappointing to see both the Education Committee Inquiry in its call for evidence and the ESFA in its procurement approach still focused on historic patterns of provision and the preservation of an old delivery system that penalises typically new providers.

How much degree apprenticeship provision ESFA has purchased remains to be seen, and comparative figures for higher, advanced and intermediate apprenticeship provision and how this relates to the skills need of the economy still to be analysed.

I hope that in the near future employers will not be subject to a postcode lottery for the provision of degree apprenticeships but able to choose the apprenticeships that are of most benefit to their business and select the university, college or independent training provider that they consider are best able to meet their needs.

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