If we really want to develop our economy, we should focus more on the top echelons, suggests Adrian Anderson

At the recent AELP June conference there was a lot of talk about the value of intermediate apprenticeships and the importance of not equating quality apprenticeships with those at a higher level. But let’s be quite clear: if the purpose of apprenticeships is to raise productivity and enhance social mobility, England’s apprenticeship programme must have a significant focus on higher-level skills provision. 

From a productivity standpoint, ask any economist and they will emphasise the UK’s acute need of a highly skilled workforce to compete with our OECD and BRIC competitors. If you have these skills, you’re also likely to earn more. For these reasons, apprenticeships have been positioned as England’s flagship skills programme, but look at the current figures on delivery and it’s clear how much the focus of apprenticeship delivery has to change.

In the 2015/16 academic year there were 509,400 apprenticeship starts. By level, this was 57 per cent at level two, 38 per cent at level three, two per cent at level four, three per cent at level five and just 0.2 per cent at level six. The top five starts by apprenticeship framework were: health and social care (85k), business administration (50k), management (46k), hospitality and catering (32k), and customer service (26K)

Shouldn’t the skills sector embrace rather than resist change?

The apprenticeship reforms and the levy, however, herald a clear and significant shift upwards in apprenticeship levels. Employers have taken a lead through the trailblazer process to develop apprenticeships that are needed by the economy. 

NHS trusts, with massive levy bills, have developed degree apprenticeships in nursing. Degree apprenticeships are also being developed by local authorities for social workers and by police forces for officers, occupations vital to the provision of high-quality public services. Surely no one could disagree with a substantial focus and public sector levy spend on degree apprenticeships in nursing, social work and policing? 

In the private sector let’s hope our post-Brexit car industry makes extensive use of the manufacturing degree apprenticeship and our lights are kept on by the nuclear industry combatting chronic skills shortages through investment in the nuclear engineering degree apprenticeship. Through investment in the digital solutions higher and degree apprenticeships we’ll have a better chance of overcoming the cyberattacks that have featured in the news in recent months. 

And yes, there are some occupations where intermediate apprenticeships should be valued. No one would doubt the case for apprenticeships in butchery, bakery or carpentry, for instance. My point is that the current balance in apprenticeship provision is wrong and there’s been far too much focus on the generic lower-level apprenticeships in questionable job roles. Wasn’t this also a conclusion of the Richard review?

From a social mobility standpoint, the argument is also clear-cut: intermediate apprenticeships do help many young people enter the labour market. But don’t we need clear work-based progression routes to higher level occupations, ideally through higher and degree apprenticeships, for the system to make a major contribution to social mobility? Shouldn’t one of the ambitions of the reforms be an employer-funded debt-free route from apprenticeships to the professions, in which individual learners, particularly from disadvantaged backgrounds, earn while they learn? And if employers want to shift away from some of the old generic level two frameworks, will not the needs of new learners who would, in the past, have followed such programmes be best met by the new T-levels? 

Of course, a change in focus could be difficult for some providers – but change Will happen. The opportunities, however, are substantial: through the levy there’s significantly more funding (40 per cent more!) than in the past for delivery. The government is planning substantial investment in T-levels, which is another opportunity. We’re also seeing both independent training providers and further education colleges developing their presence in the higher and degree apprenticeship market. Shouldn’t the skills sector embrace rather than resist change and be at the forefront of developing the skills needed by the UK economy? 

 

Adrian Anderson is chief executive of the University Vocational Awards Council