Ask most university leaders if they are committed to social mobility, and they will talk enthusiastically about their widening access work.
They will explain all that they do to help students from less advantaged backgrounds to secure places in their institutions, and to support them once they are there.
Indeed, the government’s widening access regime means that literally hundreds of millions of pounds are spent on this work every year.
But there is a second dimension to universities’ social mobility responsibilities that gets rather less attention. Universities are not just educators – they are also major employers.
As many as 223,000 jobs are generated by higher education in London. And the approach they take to hiring and career development – in particular, the extent to which they are open to hiring recruits without degrees – can be an important engine of social mobility.
It is not entirely surprising that the HE sector has been less active in this domain. Universities are bound to believe in the values of degrees – it’s pretty much their defining belief – and are instinctively inclined to favour job applicants who have been to a university over those who have not.
Yet a bit of reflection suggests that not every job that a university offers needs to be done by someone with degree level qualifications, and that there might even be ways of recruiting candidates without qualifications to entry level roles while supporting them to get additional credentials.
These tensions are all too clear when it comes to apprenticeships. It’s now seven years since the Cameron government introduced the apprenticeship levy – a modest charge on all larger employers (0.5 per cent on companies with a wage bill of over £3 million) to fund apprenticeship training for employees. Employers can also transfer up to a quarter of their levy to other, usually smaller, non-levy paying, employers.
The justification was simple. UK employers spend much less on training, especially training for those with lower qualifications, than similar nations. Here was a way of strongly incentivising employers to spend more, while giving them the discretion to determine what roles to recruit to and what training to provide.
Deployment of the levy, however, has been patchy – particularly in the university sector.
Leveraging the levy
The University of London recently commissioned the charity Workwhile to explore how we and our 17 federal members currently use the levy and how we could use it better.
Its report Leveraging the Levy estimates that the University of London’s federation members spend at least £10 million on the levy every year but use less than 25 per cent of that on apprenticeship training, with the rest going to the Treasury. They also found that when the levy is being used, it is primarily spent on training for existing employees who already have degrees.
The good news, however, is that this is beginning to change. A growing number of the University of London’s federation members are employing apprentices or transferring their levy to other employers.
The London Business School now uses almost half of its levy and is planning to grow this substantially. Several institutions, including the University of London itself, have created new roles in their HR teams to support the growth of apprenticeships. City, University of London, King’s College London, Queen Mary, University of London, and UCL are all now transferring a portion of their levy to small employers to spend on apprenticeship training.
Universities have tended to offer apprenticeship training at the higher end of qualifications, and our federation is no exception – members have supported degree level apprenticeships in management, coaching and data analysis.
But we have also offered non-degree level training to data technicians, information technologists, facilities assistants, finance and accounting, libraries and archives assistants, publishing assistants, lab technicians and health and safety managers. And it is in these less skilled areas that universities can arguably best deliver both social and corporate impact, boosting social mobility and addressing skills gaps.
Similarly, University of London federation members have used levy transfer to fund apprentice training in early childhood education, social care, catering, electrics, plumbing, data science, marketing and many other areas, in small local businesses. The University of London has just appointed Workwhile to support further take-up of apprenticeships across the federation members.
Champions and leisure transfer
The report also lays out a clear path, that if followed, would lead to a very sizeable increase in the number of apprenticeships across the federation.
Recommendations include appointing apprenticeship champions in senior leadership teams, taking a federation-wide approach to promoting apprenticeship opportunities and recruiting and supporting apprenticeships, and working together to transfer unspent levy to smaller and local businesses.
Attitudes to widening participation policy have undergone a transformation in recent decades. Where once it was common to hear senior university administrators murmuring about “social engineering” there is now near universal recognition that widening access is not just good for less advantaged students – it’s good for universities.
We need to understand apprenticeships in the same way. Investing in apprenticeships can help universities deepen civic ties, diversify workforces (which studies show, helps strengthen organisational performance), recruit to “hard to fill” roles and retain employees in them.
We recognise, across the University of London, that we have a way to go. But we have taken the first steps on our journey. And we expect it to get easier as we go.