Skills and the apprenticeship system in England must encompass level 8, ditching the notion that apprenticeships are primarily about craft and technical level roles, says Mandy Crawford-Lee

The recent “wobble” by the Institute for Apprenticeships and Technical Education (IfATE) on whether to support the development of level 8 apprenticeships has been welcomed by some in the skills sector. We’ve heard the opinion, reported in the FE press, that PhD-level apprenticeships are purely academic programmes and not in the “spirit” of the policy on apprenticeships.

Such comments show a bewildering lack of understanding of higher education provision and contemporary skills programmes. Ask a member of the public if a surgeon or dentist – both level 8 occupations – need practical skills and the answer obviously would be yes. Indeed, the whole concept of knowledge, skills and behaviours or professional values fits perfectly with such occupations.

The existence of the professional doctorate used in a wide range of sectors also seems to be ignored in these debates. The UK Economic and Social Research Council expects individuals undertaking professional doctorates to “contribute to both theory and practice in their field and to develop professional practice…”

Indeed, professional doctorates could help turbo-boost the apprenticeship programme at this level across many sectors and occupations by bringing practice closer to learning. It is disappointing that the existence and use of professional doctorates doesn’t seem to be always understood, given that there is a substantial track record of developing occupational competence at level 8. It is therefore not surprising that employers are developing apprenticeship programmes at level 8 as they recognise their contribution to understanding and applying knowledge, as well as developing research-informed practice and lifelong learning skills, enhancing the route from degree apprenticeships to professional careers.

Let’s knock on the head the idea that level 8 can’t be about skills

Put simply, I suggest that knowledge, skills and behaviours are rather important in the nuclear industry, advanced clinical and nursing practice, in education, in training (extending the notion of “prac-academics”) and for research scientists and engineers where level 8 apprenticeships could be, and are being, developed. From a skills and productivity perspective, the occupations where level 8 standards are being developed and proposed tick all the boxes.

So let’s knock on the head the idea of the appropriateness of apprenticeships at this level and the notion that level 8 can’t be about skills; a failure to do so is a failure to recognise the diversity and complexity of employment today.

I suspect that part of the problem is that many people are wedded to two ideas. Firstly, that apprenticeships must remain a social inclusion route simply for the young or the disadvantaged; and secondly, that associate skills training, particularly at levels 2 and 3, are something to be delivered exclusively by colleges and independent training providers. While FE does play a key role in the delivery of skills programmes, so do higher education providers, employers and both professional and regulatory bodies.

Apprenticeships are now led by employers rather than further education, with economic productivity a key policy driver; an objective glance at the skills-needs of the UK economy would confirm the need for level 8 apprenticeships, and any employer engaged in their development should be congratulated. It’s high-time we drop the notion that apprenticeships are primarily about craft and technical level roles. If we don’t, we will totally undermine the ability of apprenticeship to tackle the UK’s No 1 economic challenge – the blight of low productivity.

It would be economic folly to ignore the knowledge, skills and behaviours needed to become occupationally competent in key level 8 occupations. The Department for Education and IfATE, perhaps with help and encouragement from the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy and the Treasury respectively, need to stick to the concept of apprenticeship as an employer-led and productivity-focused skills programme. Not to do so provides an example of where the importance and value of degree apprenticeships are not adequately supported by government policy and messages.