DfE finally confirms thousands of apprentices are going unregulated – but is now trying to find a solution

The government has confirmed there are thousands of apprentices with no organisation responsible for checking the quality of their training – but has committed to fixing the issue following revelations by FE Week.

However, a solution might not be found for some time as its proposed regulator, the Office for Students, has said no arrangement will be decided on until the huge task of signing off on applications to its provider register is completed, which is likely to run into late 2019.

Last week this newspaper revealed that providers who deliver level 6 and 7 apprenticeships that have no prescribed HE qualification, such as a degree, and are not on the OfS’ register, go without any regulation.

We need to finish the OfS registration process before we can say which providers will become eligible for these new arrangements

Ofsted’s inspection remit only extends to level 5 apprenticeships.

FE Week analysis shows there are 15 approved standards at higher levels with no degree element, which have had a combined total of 4,443 starts on them since 2016/17.

One of the standards, the level seven accountancy and taxation professional, had over 3,500 starts in 2017/18 alone.

The Department for Education stayed silent on the embarrassing situation last week but has now confirmed there is currently no regulator responsible.

A spokesperson then told FE Week: “The OfS and the DfE are working together to make sure apprenticeship training is high-quality at levels 6 and 7, whether the provider is registered with the OfS or not.

“All providers are required to be on the register of apprenticeship training providers – including the small number of providers offering non-degree apprenticeships at Level 6 and 7 – and must deliver high quality programmes that meet our strict funding rules.”

The OfS confirmed an arrangement was being thought up, but added it would not be decided on until it completes the current application round to its own provider register, of which there are over 300 applications.

“We are developing arrangements with the DfE to assess quality and standards for providers delivering apprenticeships at level 6 and above, but which have not registered with the OfS,” a spokesperson said.

“However, we need to finish the OfS registration process before we can say which providers will become eligible for these new arrangements. DfE and OfS will make an announcement when this is clear.”

She continued: “While the OfS regulates higher education, we are not an inspectorate like Ofsted. In that capacity, we have been assessing hundreds of applications from all kinds of higher education provider through our registration process, including all apprenticeships and other provision at level 4 to 7, whether this has a qualification or not.

While the OfS regulates higher education, we are not an inspectorate like Ofsted

“If an application doesn’t meet our high quality threshold we can put conditions on a registration, add extra scrutiny or we can refuse their application altogether.”

Any HE provider that is delivering higher apprenticeships that do not have a degree element is still subject to OfS regulation if they’re on its register, so some of the starts in question would have been assessed.

The issue of no oversight lies with providers, such as Kent County Council, which deliver the high-level apprenticeships but are not on the OfS register and therefore not subject to their regulation.

Nick Hillman, the director of the Higher Education Policy Institute and a former adviser to HE minister David Willetts, said last week that answers are needed “as to why these qualifications are being allowed to fall through the cracks”.

“I am sure it is a cock-up rather than intentional, but it could be unfair to the students involved and reflects the complexity of the new arrangements,” he added.