David Hughes is wrong to criticise the rise in management apprenticeships – they are opening opportunities to people who’ve never had them, argues Mandy Crawford-Lee

The University Vocational Awards Council believes in the vital role of colleges in delivering college and work-based training programmes for young people and adults. We also want to champion HE and FE partnership in the delivery of apprenticeships. 

However, we strongly disagree with David Hughes’ concerns about an ‘unstoppable rise in management apprenticeships’ and inaccessible degree apprenticeships, voiced in his interview with FE Week published on 10 November. Much as UVAC values and respects the AoC, we would like to set out why these arguments are so flawed.

Read any labour market study and a deficiency in and need for management skills will be identified. Put simply, a lack of management skills is arguably the most significant barrier to increasing productivity in both the public and private sector.

The levy isn’t ‘FE money’

Apprenticeships are supposedly a productivity programme where employers are in the driving seat. When the apprenticeship levy was introduced, levy-paying employers were given the assurance they would choose through the apprenticeship service how it should be spent. Are AoC really arguing that employers should be restricted on using levy funds on the chartered manager degree apprenticeship, despite commitments made by government and the evident need to enhance the quality of leadership and management in the UK economy?

There are a few other fundamental problems with the AoC’s arguments. First, let’s look at where the levy is coming from.

The biggest levy payer by far is the NHS.  The effective use of their levy will be fundamental to the development of NHS staff and the delivery of NHS services. We would all want the NHS to have the best trained and most competent managers possible, and we know from some significant tenders the NHS wants to use the chartered manager degree apprenticeship to meet an identified need. The NHS sees the maximum recovery of its levy payments as fundamentally important – to state the obvious, the NHS is a cash-strapped organisation. Is the AoC really saying the NHS shouldn’t be able to recover its levy payments as its sees fit and the AoC knows better than NHS managers how best to spend their levy payments?

A second problem with the AoC argument is that it feels like the thin end of the wedge. Take the registered nurse degree apprenticeship. Before Brexit, the UK was facing a massive shortage of nurses; with Brexit, this shortage will increase substantially. We suspect – and hope – many NHS trusts will focus on recovering a large proportion of their levy payments by using the registered nurse degree apprenticeship.

The biggest levy payer by far is the NHS

Police forces will do likewise with the police constable degree apprenticeship, and local authorities with the social work degree apprenticeship. Given these are high-cost, high-level and potentially high-volume programmes, does David Hughes want to restrict their numbers too and instead divert funding, against employer wishes, to the level 2 business administration and customer service apprenticeships that characterised the system in the past?

Of course, no one would argue against using apprenticeship to support social mobility. But here again UVAC takes issue with the AoC argument. Degree apprenticeships, including the chartered manager degree apprenticeship will open up new opportunities to individuals who haven’t in the past had the opportunity to benefit from higher education or to obtain professional membership. Not all aspiring and accidental managers, and existing employees who want to become nurses and social workers, are as well paid as the AoC assumes.

Finally, AoC might be playing with fire here. The levy wasn’t introduced by government as a cash grab or stealth tax on employers in the public and private sector to fund further education. The levy isn’t ‘FE money’.

The apprenticeship reforms were introduced to move the system on and replace the old discredited agency, intermediary level and provider-driven apprenticeship system of the past. Employers not providers are in the driving seat, and employer leadership will ensure the development of a high-quality apprenticeship system. 

Mandy Crawford-Lee is director of policy and operations at the University Vocational Awards Council