Not funding level 6 and 7 apprenticeships through the levy would utterly destroy the productivity and social mobility focus of apprenticeship, says Adrian Anderson

As ministers have repeatedly said, it is employers, not training providers, who are best placed to decide how to develop and use apprenticeships to raise the productivity and performance of their organisations. Yet in a bizarre and ill-judged paper, the Association of Employment and Learning Providers, a body that predominately represents independent training providers delivering level 2 and 3 apprenticeships, has called for a withdrawal of levy funding for level 6 and 7 and degree apprenticeships. As chief executive of UVAC, the representative organisation for 90 universities delivering degree apprenticeships, I would be remiss not to point out the flaws in their argument.

The apprenticeship levy was introduced to raise the level of employer investment in skills and tackle the UK’s productivity gap. Rather than wanting, through apprenticeship, to develop a high-skill, high-productivity and high-wage economy, AELP want to prioritise funding for apprenticeship on lower-level skills. So as China and India focus on moving up the value chain, AELP want to stop funding raised by government, through an apprenticeship tax, for level 6 and 7 engineering and digital technology apprenticeships and instead prioritise levels 2 and 3.

Sure, we need more of a focus on level 4 and 5 apprenticeship where there are real skill shortages, but far less focus on level 2, where I’m not aware of significant skills shortages that are having an adverse impact on UK productivity. Will the UK suffer because there are fewer level 2 business administration, customer service or retail apprenticeships?

On social mobility, AELP’s proposal is just as weak

AELP’s arguments look even more bizarre when applied to the public sector. Are AELP really saying that the NHS shouldn’t spend on registered nursing degree apprenticeships and police forces on police constable degree apprenticeships? Do AELP want levy funds paid by the NHS and police forces to be used to fund, as examples, level 2 hairdressing or catering apprenticeships in small private businesses? 

The standard arguments against higher-level apprenticeships tend to criticise management apprenticeships such as chartered manager. But on this issue we agree with the Institute for Apprenticeship and Technical Education (IfATE): the government’s industrial strategy made it quite clear deficiencies in management skills are a key factor explaining the UK’s productivity gap. Look at most labour market intelligence reports and management and leadership skills are seen as a key concern. As apprenticeship is a programme aimed at increasing productivity, is it not a good thing that employers choose to focus on management skills?

On social mobility, AELP’s proposal is just as weak. Firstly, the introduction of degree apprenticeships has demonstrated apprenticeship can be an aspirational programme and not just the good choice for other people’s children. Degree apprenticeship will help ensure new progression opportunities are opened up to the professions for new cohorts of learners. In the public sector we’re seeing police forces use degree apprenticeship to recruit more women and BME entrants and help ensure police forces better reflect the communities they serve. Nursing degree apprenticeships will open up nursing opportunities to many individuals doing lower level healthcare roles. Good news? Apparently not to AELP. 

AELP often quotes Ofsted statements that seemingly support its position on the prioritisation of lower level apprenticeships. I think Ofsted’s argument that the priority for apprenticeship should be 16–18-year-olds without a level 2 should be analysed critically. In the first place, why should employers be forced to fund apprenticeship programmes they don’t really need for the third of young people who, after 11 years of compulsory education, do not achieve a full level 2?

May I politely suggest to Ofsted that they focus on improving school standards rather than telling private businesses, NHS trust chief executives and police chief constables how to spend their apprenticeship levy. Does Ofsted really object to the NHS and police forces using their levy payments to train, through degree apprenticeships, the nurses and police officers society needs?

And for young people without a full level 2, failed by the schools system, I’d suggest there are better options than apprenticeship; traineeships for example. Indeed, as I recall, part of the policy approach was to use and develop technical training options where employers were not using apprenticeships.

So in terms of the way forward? Ministers need to stick with the policy. The IfATE can use the levers it has at its disposal to manage any potential overspend – but let’s start the debate on how this is done now. Can Ofsted stick to the day job of raising school standards? As for AELP and its independent training provider members: accept the decline in apprenticeships at level 2, it’s a good thing, and focus on the apprenticeships employers want to use and the economy needs. The bad old days of provider-led fully-funded level 2 provision in dubious occupational areas are over.

Given all I’ve said, it will come as no surprise that UVAC are calling for the IfATE, the Department for Education and the Treasury to dismiss AELP’s proposal.