Employers having control over UK skills policy is ‘rhetoric, not reality’

The government should move away from its “unhelpful” mantra of “employers in the driving seat” in UK skills policy because this is “more rhetoric than reality”, new research has suggested.

The phrase was coined with regard to further education in the latter years of the Coalition government – 2010-2015. However, the study has found that instead, the state remains “stubbornly” in the driving seat, particularly as far as apprenticeships are concerned. It adds that the key players – government, employers and providers – are out of balance with one another.

The research, exclusively shared with FE Week, was conducted by the Association of Employment and Learning Providers and the Further Education Trust for Leadership via a series of nine roundtable discussions with 81 sector leaders across the country.

It explored what effect the “employers in the driving seat” mantra has had on their business and decision-making, but found that it has “not had much of an impact at all”.

“It is not clear what employers are supposed to be in the driving seat of, as policy is set by the state, funding is held and released by the state, and the quality of delivery is monitored by the state,” the report said.

“Certainly not a driving seat – [it’s] lucky if it is passenger seat, possibly rear seat or a backwards-facing baby seat.”

It added: “Only the content of delivery is in any way led by employers, but even this is heavily bounded by the state.”

The report said the “emphasis” in the skills system is “too heavily on the state imposing a top-down structure than on the relationships between them that could result in the outputs that are aimed for”.

While employers “in general do not want so much involvement”, providers feel that their expertise and achievements are “under-recognised”.

“There is certainly no desire to sideline the state or to deny its influence and importance in the provision of a skills strategy suitable for the economy as a whole, but there is a strong feeling that if the state viewed the system less as a hierarchy and more as a process of relationships, a wider range of objectives could be simultaneously successfully addressed,” the report added.

Mark Dawe (pictured), chief executive of AELP, explained that, in particular, employers are not in control of the development of apprenticeship standards and of the funding band reviews – which have seen some of the most popular apprenticeships, including the chartered manager degree standard, have their funding slashed despite strong appeals from the employer groups who develop them.

“Some employers have told me they have been working on a standard for four years, they know what they want, they submit it to the Department for Education and then [government] comes back and says ‘no, you cannot have it’,” he told this publication.

 “They are not listening. It’s almost ‘keep asking employers and when they ask for the right thing we will let them have it. And the right thing is what we define, not what [the employers] define’.”

Dawe added that the frustration of the providers and colleges present at the roundtables was that they knew how they should be working with employers, but government red-tape, restrictions and a lack of funding are not allowing them the “flexibility” to do it.

“It’s almost as though, if we got rid of the government, then people could just get on with it,” he continued.

“Government saying that employers are in the driving seat is simply not the case, and it annoys employers because they keep getting sold that they are in control and they don’t feel in control.”

A Department for Education spokesperson said: “Employers have been at the heart of our reforms to the apprenticeship programme right from the start.

“We will continue to work with employers to help them take advantage of the levy and wider funding changes, so they can invest in the long-term skills needs of their business.”