The Government has faced criticism for rejecting attempts to ensure representatives from all stakeholders involved with apprenticeships — not just employers — are represented on the new Institute for Apprentices. Shakira Martin spells out the case for involving apprentice voices.

The government is once again chanting its refrain of “employers must be in the driving seat”.

The announcement of who will sit on the board of the Institute for Apprentices is all about ensuring employers have their say.

This mantra has been repeated so often you might be fooled into thinking that the government has a clear idea of why this should be the case, and what exactly ‘employer-led’ means.

Yet one of the key aspects of apprenticeships policy, and in fact the reason why the government felt it needed to introduce a levy, is that there is no such thing as a single ‘employer interest’.

Different employers have different interests — they need different forms of training, within different sized budgets, at different skill levels.

The government has confused the admirable aim of ensuring that demand is driven by individual employers’ skills needs, with the belief that in order to do so requires collective employer dominance of the new institute.

But employers are only one of the many stakeholders who matter in apprenticeships.

Countries with successful apprenticeship models, such as Germany, have recognised that a successful and high quality skills policy is a collaborative effort of employers, educators and apprentices themselves.

That’s why I’m disappointed to see the new institute seemingly dominated not only by employer representatives, but by university-educated employer representatives with no direct experience of apprenticeships.

Going forward, I implore the new institute to find a forum for incorporating apprentice voices, and work with the National Society of Apprentices and trade unions to do so.

This might involve an advisory board to the institute, or a national survey of apprentices’ experiences.

There is too much uncertainty for apprentices that their investment will be worthwhile

The government’s approach has consistently overstated the investment that employers make in an apprenticeships, and underestimated the massive commitment that apprentices themselves are making.

Apprentices are taking on poverty wages and investing their time, effort and energy in training and work.

Despite the government’s continued reforms, there is too much uncertainty for apprentices that their investment will be worthwhile.

We are hearing too many stories of apprentices with poor training, poor work opportunities and poor future employment prospects.

Prospective apprentices are effectively rolling the dice when it comes to making a quality choice.

That’s why NUS is continuing to invest in the National Society of Apprentices, which is growing day by day and now represents 150,000 apprentices in 150 different employers and training providers.

Having succeeded in obtaining a substantial increase in the apprentice minimum wage and an entitlement to sick pay last year, the society is now campaigning for a fairer deal for apprentices in many more policy areas.

We would like to see apprentices entitled to discount travel, become eligible for Care to Learn bursaries and have a right to a similar council tax exemption as full-time students. In particular, we are focusing on our campaigns for apprentices in Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland in the run-up to the devolved government elections this May.

We also want the government to explore wage subsidies for young apprentices on the apprentice minimum wage, by using outstanding funds raised by the levy.

This would enable apprenticeships to be more accessible and appealing, without increasing the burden or risk on employers.

Crucially, we want to see real plans from the government about how it will ensure 3m new apprenticeships progress into 3m secure, well-paid, full-time jobs.

As in all aspects of skills and education policy, ultimately it will be the health and strength of the jobs market that will determine whether we are successful in fulfilling the promises of opportunity and security we give to students and apprentices.


Shakira Martin is vice president of the National Union of Students

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  1. Hear, hear, but will they listen – too many government advisers have little idea of what the would-be apprentice has to do just to comply with the ‘rules’. Rules often based on the ‘curriculum’ timetable. Many colleges regard apprentices as ‘students,’ funding agencies refer to them as ‘learners’ when in fact they all ’employees’ and most employers understandably begrudge ‘losing’ their employee for day release, especially if they learn that the training was patchy at best, spread over a few contact hours and much wasted time. Day-release for many apprentices is unpaid, travel is often a huge challenge and yet they have no say whatsoever. But none of this matters to those learning providers driving to get ‘bums on seats’
    An advisory board which includes apprentices past and present might provide the voice of ‘reality’, assuming anyone will listen.