Criticism over competition

Skills Funding Agency could take funding away from providers who try to poach employers

Providers could miss out on vital apprenticeship funding if they are found to be poaching employers.

The hard-line has been taken by the Skills Funding Agency (SFA) in the wake of a number of complaints from providers, who have already set up agreements with employers, in recent months.

Although the number of complaints has not been revealed, the National Apprenticeship Service (NAS) say the figure is on the rise.

The SFA, in Update 84, said: “We have recently received complaints from some providers that employers, for whom they have an agreement with to deliver training, have been approached by other training organisations in an attempt to persuade the employer to transfer its delivery to them.

“Where it appears that this has occurred we reserve the right not to fund the delivery.”

A spokesperson for the NAS added: “The NAS has been made aware of a rise in employer poaching incidents over the last few months.

“We regularly remind providers that this is not an acceptable practice and we are committed to reviewing any incidents that they are made aware of.”

Chris Lang, vice principal finance and resources at Cambridge Regional College, described to FE Week two different methods of poaching that his institute had experienced.

The first involves providers who are aware of an agreement, but they approach the business regardless, with offers of free training.

Often, he said, this can come from a college promoting its own success story.

New providers then phone the business, which in turn call the original provider and say they have been offered free training.

While some businesses will call the college to ask for a discount, others will simply call to say they have changed providers.

Mr Lang said: “You can’t even go out and promote your own success. It’s like ambulance chasing.”

He added: “We’ve been charging fees for about four years. They range in price and we publish them, so other colleges and providers must know what our fees are. We are under constant pressure to have a no fee policy to market ourselves competitively.”

The second has seen providers contacting employers without the knowledge that they have an agreement in place. It is something which Mr Lang says has been occurring for “three to four” years, but it has so far gone without reproach.

He added: “One view is they’re not meeting their contract so they go out and offer low or no fee because they are desperate to meet it.

“We mail shot people but we don’t say we are doing it free and undercut people. If they say they work with somebody, we log it and won’t call them again. If they want to change, they can contact us. I don’t have a problem with free market and businesses are free to choose. But they aren’t choosing on a level playing field.”

Teresa Frith, the senior skills policy manager at the Association of Colleges, said competition should be on quality and not price. She said: “I would hope that it’s really about the quality of the provision and not the price of the provision. What I don’t want to see is the learner disadvantaged.”

She also said businesses being approached should consider what they are getting. “Are they getting like for like? Are they getting less?” she said.

Meanwhile, the Association of Employment and Learning Providers (AELP) has stressed its support for the action. Graham Hoyle, AELP chief executive, said: “We support the approach that the SFA is taking.”