So, the tenders are in for the second attempt at procurement for apprenticeship provision for non-levy paying employers, and it’s over to the ESFA.

As well as evaluating tenders, we’d suggest it’s also time to hold the ESFA’s own performance to account. It’s fundamental this time that the procurement is successful and works to the skills needs of employers, localities and the country as a whole. No one would argue that managing anything on this scale is easy – but isn’t it the ESFA’s job? And they designed it, complexities and all. In apprenticeship terminology, shouldn’t the ESFA have the knowledge, skills and behaviours to manage a successful procurement?

The University Vocational Awards Council (UVAC), as a representative organisation, has raised concerns along with others on the procurement. The unstable nature of the process, the repeated updates to forms, the 800 tender clarifications, the last-minute deadline extension with 48 hours to go, the changes to threshold calculations, and even the fact that a critical procurement exercise was run over the summer have all been problematic.

The fact that getting this procurement right is so important for the apprenticeships reforms in general and degree apprenticeships in particular was outlined in a recent report from HEFCE, the higher education regulator. Remember also that apprenticeships are the government’s flagship productivity programme and that around a third of new employer-developed standards are at higher-education level. We’re not therefore talking about niche provision.

There’s been a loss of confidence in the ESFA – or at least this part of the organisation

HEFCE’s report identified three things in particular. Just 13 per cent of degree apprenticeship starts planned with non-levy payers remained after the ESFA’s first attempt at procurement. After the first round was paused, one higher education provider adjusted its targeted starts for non-levy paying employers downwards from 90 to two, while a London institution went from 77 to zero. One region had no provider with any allocation to deliver degree apprenticeships to non-levy paying employers.

In one case study, a higher education provider “had conducted a survey of demand for apprenticeship provision among (its local) SME population, which showed around 50 SMEs had an immediate or future interest in degree apprenticeship, and a further 60 SMEs requested further information”. After the pause, the provider was unable to follow up even “such clearly evidenced local demand”.

From UVAC’s perspective, this is a rather worrying position for what’s supposed to be England’s flagship productivity programme. It’s also important to realise that the damage caused by the failure of the first attempt at procurement isn’t just a short-term problem. There’s been a loss of confidence in the ESFA – or at least this part of the organisation. Higher education providers had developed partnerships not just with SMEs, but also with LEPs and further education providers, many of which have been delayed or abandoned. Momentum has been lost and some HEIs took the decision to focus on levy-paying employer business, to the detriment of the productivity agenda. 

The silence, at least in public, of the Institute for Apprenticeships on the ESFA’s approach to procurement of provision is surprising. I appreciate that the Institute’s remit focuses on the quality of standards and assessment plans and advising on funding bands. But, if ESFA’s funding system prevents non-levy payers from using the new apprenticeships developed through the trailblazer process, such employers can’t benefit from new high-quality standards.

The attempt will reveal whether the ESFA is a “skills” funding agency able to fund the apprenticeships developed by employer groups. I suspect no-one will be entirely happy with the outcome, but if the ESFA is able to demonstrate it has been based on the offer developed by employers, clearly reflective of employer demand and the policy pillars of enhancing social mobility and raising productivity, it may be able to redeem a reputation.

Adrian Anderson is chief executive of the University Vocational Awards Council