A high-profile business school that made millions of pounds by quickly recruiting more than 800 management apprentices has been criticised by Ofsted.
The Ashridge (Bonar Law Memorial) Trust, an arm of Hult International Business School, faces a government ban from taking on new apprentices after inspectors found it had made “insufficient progress” during a new provider monitoring visit.
Leaders were pulled up for not knowing the progress that apprentices were making, for failing to liaise with employers, weak governance and a failure to take account of apprentices’ prior learning.
But the provider did receive some praise for the quality of its training and safeguarding.
Ashridge (Bonar Law Memorial) Trust had 810 apprentices on its books at the time of Ofsted’s visit in June, all of whom were on management apprenticeships from levels 4 to 7.
The firm boasts that it is “ranked within the top 20 business schools worldwide” and is among “less than 1 per cent of institutions to be triple accredited” by the management institutions EQUIS, the Association of MBAs and the Association to Advance Collegiate Schools of Business.
The provider is also audited by QAA, the Quality Assurance Agency for Higher Education. The agency’s latest review of Ashridge’s provision was published in 2017 and found the provider was meeting all expected quality standards.
Ashridge moved into the apprenticeships market in 2019. The firm’s latest accounts state that “most” of its qualification revenue, which totalled £4 million in 2020 and £5.8 million the year before, relates to apprenticeships.
The accounts, which also show reserves totalling £16.6 million, add that the company deems the collection of this revenue to be “low risk” because it is funded through a government agency.
Hult International Business School offers management courses in Boston, New York, San Francisco, Dubai, Shanghai and London. They typically cost tens of thousands of pounds.
Mark Coleman, the senior vice-president for enrolment at Hult International Business School, told FE Week that the Ashridge (Bonar Law Memorial) Trust had seen a “great increase in interest” by employers for its management apprenticeship programmes over the past 18 months.
Management apprenticeships have grown to dominate the sector since the levy reforms in 2017 and now sit among the most popular sectors in terms of starts.
Several prominent sector figures, including Ofsted chief inspector Amanda Spielman, have expressed concerns about the rise in management training as apprenticeships.
Spielman warned in 2018 that graduate schemes were “in essence being rebadged as apprenticeships”, which kickstarted the decision for Ofsted to inspect level 6 and 7 apprenticeships. The courses were the responsibility of the Office for Students until April 2021.
In 2019, the National Audit Office reported that levy-payers weare “replacing their professional development programmes – for example, graduate training schemes in accountancy or advanced courses in management – with apprenticeships”.
But the move to publicly funding management courses has been defended by Institute for Apprenticeships and Technical Education chief executive Jennifer Coupland, who said in January 2020 that the practice was “perfectly legitimate”.
Ashridge (Bonar Law Memorial) Trust’s Ofsted report criticised leaders and managers for not having “effective oversight of the skills that apprentices develop”.
They also “do not liaise with employers to design apprentices’ training programmes” or to “ensure the training employers provide reflects the requirements of the apprenticeship standard”.
The board of directors also “do not receive feedback on the quality of training that apprentices receive” and are “unable to challenge senior leaders and managers to provide training that meets the requirements of successful apprenticeships”.
Managers, meanwhile, “do not assess the starting points of apprentices accurately” and “do not explore what apprentices can already do or have a good understanding of”.
Praise, however, was given to the provider’s workplace mentors who “usually have an appropriate understanding of the topics that apprentices learn in their theory sessions” and provide “good support” to apprentices.
Under Education and Skills Funding Agency rules, any provider with at least one “insufficient” rating in one of Ofsted’s new provider monitoring visits is banned from taking on any new apprentices until the grade improves.
Coleman said his provider “will work closely with Ofsted in preparation for a full inspection”.