This article is more than 3 years old

Reallocate skills funding to regions to rescue ailing apprenticeship system

Devolution of skills funding could revive apprenticeships and get local economies going again, says Caroline Cowburn.
This article is more than 3 years old

Caroline Cowburn is Assistant Vice Chancellor (Transformation) at the University of Bolton, and a member of the advisory board of Rise, a research institute for social mobility and transformation.

With a further six months of lockdown restrictions on the horizon, if we are to recover economically, we are going to need all the help we can get, and apprenticeships must play an important part.

Yet participation in apprenticeships has been decreasing week on week throughout lockdown, as businesses make tough decisions on how to align future staffing resources.

Apprenticeships have been transformative and are a win-win for apprentices and employers. Employers stand to gain from new ideas and approaches that act as a catalyst for transforming ways of working, and they can decide themselves how they wish to invest the apprenticeship levy, according to their specific strategic priorities and skills gaps. As a result they have access to a continuous pipeline of talent.

Apprenticeships are a credible, challenging and rewarding option for those who choose them. Learning is carefully planned with a blend of on and off-the-job elements, providing real-life practical experience underpinned by knowledge and the latest thinking.

Apprentices develop skills aligned with changes and growth in their business, while enabling the acquisition of all-important professional skills to fit in with the organisation’s culture. Apprentices must deal with high expectations from employers as a paid member of staff – all excellent preparation for the jobs of the future.

Apprenticeships and Covid-19

The Chancellor Rishi Sunak recently announced a jobs support scheme to replace the furlough scheme, which ends in October. The new scheme includes targeted measures to support viable jobs, with the state paying up to £697 towards an employee’s salary. This should allow for apprentices working in these sectors to be further supported over the coming months.

Of course, the end of the furlough scheme inevitably means some employers will have to let go of their staff, including apprentices. To address this, the government has put in place measures to support apprentices including setting up a dedicated hotline. However, more funding is needed to support these apprentices to secure a new opportunity in the same sector. Or if there are none in their current sector, an element of re-training will be required.

At this very stressful time, apprentices will need access to information advice and guidance to help them make the right choice. All associated costs of this should be met by the government. The government is already going some way to address this and increasing the number of apprenticeships available by offering generous hiring incentives, giving employers £2000 for each new apprentice under 25 and £1500 for those over 25 that they hire.

Yet still the coronavirus pandemic has severely disrupted the apprenticeship system with providers reported to have missed their pre-coronavirus expectations of apprenticeship starts by 80 per cent. This is particularly concerning as September is typically peak recruitment time for apprenticeships. If there are not enough apprenticeships available to meet demand, these students will either enrol on a less suitable course or simply drop out of the education system altogether – hardly a step in the right direction in terms of social mobility.

Think local

We see apprenticeships as the golden thread that links the three entities of higher education, further education and work-based learning – not as a form of second-rate education. We also see apprenticeships as a way of getting our economy moving again, and getting young people back to work in an increasingly uncertain job landscape.

The aim is to make it easy for employers to access skills support and navigate the complexity of funding and new initiatives to find the best solution for them. In delivering the skills for the workforce of the future, we should listen to employers’ requirements and shape our curriculum accordingly.

By fostering collaborations and partnerships between universities, further education colleges, other education providers and local businesses, we are helping to ensure that the flow of apprentices through the education system and into employment, meets the needs of the local economy. All universities should be encouraged to develop these sorts of progressive partnerships in order to offer these advantages to students.

Universities have pivotal roles, acting as anchor institutions within their localities. They should be central in the development of industrial strategy and in bringing together the key players to catalyse investment in cutting-edge facilities, knowledge and skills. Skills and industrial strategy should work hand in glove.

To further streamline the apprenticeship system, the government should consider handing much more power to the regions by re-allocating skills and growth funding, as it has already done with adult education funding.

Local authorities and educators know much better than Whitehall what is needed to improve education locally and with control over the post 16 skills and education budget, they will be free to do whatever is necessary to fire up the post-Covid economy, with apprenticeships playing an increasingly vital part.

Despite the plethora of new initiatives and incentives, apprenticeships remain a critical plank in the skills system and should be supported if we want to rescue our ailing economy post-Covid.

Leave a Reply