Conservatives pledge 100,000 apprenticeship boost

Pledge comes amid another "crackdown" on "rip-off" university degrees

Pledge comes amid another "crackdown" on "rip-off" university degrees

28 May 2024, 22:00

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The Conservatives have pledged 100,000 more apprenticeships by 2029 if they win the general election. 

The policy, estimated to cost £885 million by 2029/30, would see apprenticeship starts rise to around 440,000 by the end of the next parliament, paid for by shutting down “underperforming” university courses.

Rishi Sunak

This comes as the Conservatives once again take aim at “rip-off degrees” in a new pledge that would see the Office for Students empowered by new laws to close university courses it deems offer poor value to students and taxpayers. 

Prime minister Rishi Sunak said: “Thanks to our plan, apprenticeships are much higher quality than they were under Labour. And now we will create 100,000 more, by putting an end to rip-off degrees and offering our young people the employment opportunities and financial security they need to thrive.”

Apprenticeship starts, particularly for young people, nosedived since the introduction of the apprenticeship levy in 2017. There were 122,750 apprentices aged under 19 in 2016/17, the year before the levy was introduced, and just 77,720 in 2022/23.

For apprentices of all ages, there were just short of 500,000 apprenticeships starts in the year before the levy was introduced, but 337,000 in 2022/23.

Continuing trends

The party have set their numbers assuming the same completion rates and trends on the distribution of apprentices across levels as in 2021/22. In that year the completion rate was just 54.8 per cent, meaning nearly half dropped out. This is despite the Conservative government setting an achievement rate target of 67 per cent. 

It also assumes continuing dominance of more expensive, higher-level and degree apprenticeships predominantly going to older workers.

The Conservatives said their 100,000 apprentices pledge would be backed by new funding and strengthening flex-job apprenticeships in the creative sector.  

This follows the prime minister’s announcement in March that the government would fully fund starts for apprentices aged under 22 in small businesses, eliminating the 5 per cent training fee firms were required to pay. The move boosted the apprenticeships budget from £2.669 billion to £2.729 billion for this year and would deliver an extra 20,000 apprenticeships, the government claimed.

Ben Rowland, chief executive at the Association of Employment and Learning Providers, which represents apprenticeship training companies, welcomed the extra funding but said employers had to step up.

“Whichever party finds itself in government there will need to be a commitment to encouraging more employers offering apprenticeship opportunities. After all, if individual employers don’t step up, we will be failing the 900,000 young people not in employment, education or training,” Rowland said.

This is not the first time the Conservatives have claimed to boost apprenticeships at the expense of university degrees. 

Last summer, the Department for Education launched a funding review of over 100 apprenticeships as part of the government’s campaign at that time to “crackdown on rip-off university degrees.”

The Conservatives are now pledging “bold action to replace these degrees with apprenticeships” which they claim will “boost young people’s life chances and stop the taxpayer rip-off.”

Just last week, CIPD became the latest employer body to point out that recent apprenticeship reforms have “clearly favoured those aged 25 and above.”

However, Conservative ministers have consistently rejected suggestions from sector and employer bodies to reform the apprenticeship levy to reverse the decline in young people, lower level and small business apprenticeships.

Further education colleges, which trained 17 per cent of apprentices last year, are among those calling for levy reforms.

Julian Gravatt, deputy chief executive of the Association of Colleges, welcomed the Conservatives’ 100,000 target but added: “Urgent reform of the apprenticeship levy, ensuring that at least half of the levy should be spent on apprenticeships for new job starters and entry level jobs, would lead to more young people across the country completing an apprenticeship.”

Savings from ‘underperforming’ degrees

Alongside efforts to increase apprenticeship starts, a returned Conservative government would empower the Office for Students with new laws to close down university courses with high dropout rates, poor progression to graduate jobs and poor graduate “earnings potential”.

“Improving education is the closest thing we have to a silver bullet for boosting life chances. So it’s not fair that some university courses are ripping young people off,” Sunak said. 

Closing so-called “underperforming” courses would save £910 million, the party claimed, based on 13 per cent of the student cohort.

This has been estimated on the basis of £1.1 billion being saved from the above-average taxpayer offset of year 1 student loans in “poorer quality” courses and then an assumption that 50 per cent of the cohort whose courses have closed going to an apprenticeship, 25 per cent to employment and 25 per cent choosing a different degree.

Gravatt said it was “hard to see” how savings from shut down degree courses would transfer to apprenticeships.

“There is no cap on higher education, so if you shut down some courses which government deems to be low quality, students may simply take a different degree-level course,” he said.

‘Laughable’ says Labour

Bridget Phillipson

Bridget Phillipson, Labour’s shadow education secretary, said: “It is laughable that the Tories, who have presided over a halving of apprenticeships for young people, are now announcing this. 

“Why on earth should parents and young people believe they’ll create training opportunities now, after 14 years of failing to deliver opportunities for young people and the skills needed to grow our economy?”

Liberal Democrat education spokesperson, Munira Wilson said: “The Conservative party has broken the apprenticeship system and this announcement does nothing to address the major issues the sector faces.

“The shockingly low pay for those on apprenticeships will remain, doing nothing to encourage more people to take apprenticeships up or tackle soaring drop out rates.

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4 Comments

  1. Dan Jones

    So at its peak Apprenticeship (and Traineeships) had 909,000 in-learning in 2016/17, then the ‘reforms’ kicked in, taking it to around 750,000 now. I’m not going to use the ‘COVID’ excuse to cover up the drop (I mean Ofsted doesn’t recognise COVID ever happened), or the shift in the make-up of that 750,000 away from young people and Levels 2 & 3. But let’s just apply some basic maths – the difference between the two figures is 159,000. So the 100,000 figure isn’t exactly ambitious, I’d rather say its disingenuous. What’s the betting that the underlying thinking is to turn even more degrees into degree apprenticeships, as opposed to redressing the balance back towards potentially using unspent levy to actually raise participation in apprenticeships by young people once again.

  2. R Taylor

    simple maths will show that many standards are so poorly funded at lower levels that they are financially unsustainable for providers to deliver. The prioritisation of certain (male dominated) apprenticeships have left other sectors like care without viable routes- leaving mainly women in low skilled low paid positions.

  3. Michael Lomas

    The problem with the levy is that it only supports the education fees and employers do not have the budgets for additional salaries. A possible small option from Government would be to allow levy paying employers to be to utilise a percentage of levy pots held to recruit to new positions for 16-18 year old’s. This would make some small difference but may increase opportunities for new starters.

  4. Steve Hewitt

    Definitely some magical thinking on the Tories part here. If (if) some poorly-performing HE courses are closed then that’s not going to stop people from applying to the equivalent well performing course at another institution. Hinds was pretty clear on BBC Breakfast yesterday that they’re not saying they’re going to stop funding subjects full stop (and, even then, the lure of a degree built up over the last 50 years, for better or worse, would just mean people applying for an adjacent subject…)