At the AELP conference, delegates were polled on the various proposals to deal with increased level 2 starts, reports Mark Dawe

Owen Farrell would have been proud of Secretary of State Damian Hinds’ kick for touch when Robert Halfon, chair of the Commons Education Select Committee, challenged him on Wednesday on whether the apprenticeship levy is doing a good job in supporting the social justice agenda in light of falling apprenticeship starts at level 2.

More level 2 starts will almost certainly mean making “hard choices” about the levy. This was previously discussed with the Department for Education permanent secretary in another Commons committee session earlier in the year. We asked Anne Milton which choice she would make if she was still skills minister after the end of July, when she attended the AELP annual conference on Tuesday.

As FE Week reported, Milton floated the possibility of a current salary limit on any would-be apprentice, potentially to reduce the number of higher level apprentices and free up more funding at the lower levels.

Electronic polling of the AELP conference delegates found that only a quarter of them were keen on this idea.

We have known for some months that in the absence of increased funding, everything is on the table

We have known for some months that in the absence of any increased funding for apprenticeships now or in the Spending Review, everything is on the table as far as hard choices are concerned and that policymakers are busy modelling them. In simple terms, the government is considering age limits, prioritisation of sectors, a cap on levels and/or a salary limit.

If Milton were to stay in post after the change in leadership at Downing Street this summer, she would almost certainly put her red marker pen through any suggestion that apprenticeships should no longer be an all-age programme. She was waxing lyrical again this week on meeting older workers whose lives had been transformed by going on an apprenticeship.

Prioritisation of sectors takes us to that age-old Whitehall minefield of trying to pick winners when the global economy is changing so rapidly and future jobs are so difficult to predict because of artificial intelligence and automation. Interestingly though, over a third of the AELP conference delegates felt that sector prioritisation was a proposal worth exploring.

The salary cap idea does correlate with the Migration Advisory Committee (MAC) and Home Office discussions on limiting the number of migratory workers earning less than £30,000 a year. But it is frankly another minefield and the Home Secretary has reportedly told the MAC to think again. A £30,000 limit on the earnings of an apprentice would, for example, have major implications for the levy spending efforts of the NHS trusts. So unless the limit was raised significantly, we believe that the proposal is probably a non-runner.

This brings us to the question of whether all levels of apprenticeships should be eligible for levy funding. In AELP’s Spending Review submission, we make clear that all levels should be supported, even if it requires the levy’s scope to be widened or its rate to be increased. Our input into the Augar Review also suggested that the higher education budget should be a contributor to the funding of degree apprenticeships as more universities sign up for the register of apprenticeship training providers.

Some 36 per cent of our conference delegates supported a level cap. This would prevent some apprenticeship levels being publicly funded. So the higher, more expensive levels would have to be funded by other means.

The simple truth is that without a hard choice being made, the money for apprenticeships will soon run out for everyone. Of course a new skills minister might be thinking that this government’s apprenticeship policy is an amazing success and we could get even more productivity, social justice and support from business if we found more money to support more apprentices at all levels. Let’s not accept a debate that is a negative; we should all join together to fight for the positive.