Apprenticeship providers desperate for government support as starts plummet

England’s largest apprenticeship providers have told FE Week that starts are “falling off a cliff” and redundancies are likely to follow.

According to many of the providers we spoke to, they are becoming increasingly desperate for the government to provide information on what, if any, financial support they will receive in response to the coronavirus crisis.

Liz Bromley, the chief executive of one of England’s largest college groups, NCG, said announcements by education ministers that they expected providers to close their doors and move to online learning for most students after this week will “inevitably impact on our colleges’ apprenticeship delivery for an uncertain period into the future”.

“Across our colleges we are seeing recruitment of new starters stall, as many of our employer partners observe guidance on social distancing, and have concerns about their financial health.

“We have already seen a number of apprentices (four in 48 hours) being made redundant across the construction and event management sectors.”

All NCG’s face-to-face learning at its seven colleges has been transferred online for its students and apprentices, and they have put workplace assessment by in-house assessors on hold.

“There is no doubt that this will impact on apprentices’ timely completion of their programmes and may well significantly reduce our income over time.

So financial support “will be needed,” she continued, “to protect the capacity of providers into the future, to maintain the confidence of employers, and to enable the apprenticeship market to grow in strength again.”

A college on the south coast, which did not want to be identified, has said the impact on their apprenticeship provision had been “immediate” and they have “well over 100 potential starts at serious immediate threat”.

Other employers they work with, like those in the aviation supply chain, have been quick to act in pausing or even cancelling recruitment.

Private provider Qube Learning said while they had seen a reduction in new enrolments, by working closely with their employers to offer online solutions they had managed to limit the damage.

But, a spokesperson said, there needs to be “some sort of profile payment support measures put in place to help providers through this period of uncertainty”.

Another provider, which wished to stay anonymous, warned they would have to consider staff redundancies if learner numbers fall off as they predict they will, after around 200 took breaks in learning already.

They said “the clock is very much ticking” for government support for the sector, but even if the support is not yet coming, confirmation it is on its way would mean providers “can plan with a bit of certainty about the future”.

The warnings come after Association of Employment and Learning Providers chief executive Mark Dawe called on the government to guarantee providers’ income from non-levy contracts, the European Social Fund, sub-contracts and adult education budgets, and for rules around that funding to be relaxed.

One provider reported that while they had yet to see employers pause their training programmes, small businesses had already, in effect, stopped paying their co-investment fee, which is what non-levy payers contribute towards training when they recruit an apprentice.

They added that even if government announced support measures, “it will probably be too late already for some redundancies to not happen, because the impact is already being felt during this month”.

They chastised the Department for Education and the Education and Skills Funding Agency for “remaining very quiet” and for “no real messaging going out”.

At the time FE Week went to press, the government had yet to publish any guidance on how providers will be funded and what help they will be receiving as the UK grapples with coronavirus.