The skills sector needs to remove its apprenticeship blinkers

27 Nov 2019, 10:05

The skills sector is still stuck on seeing apprenticeships as a NEET policy rather than the industrial strategy policy it has become, writes Mandy Crawford-Lee, and that’s leading to bad policy.

For most people in the skills sector, the priorities for apprenticeship are seen as providing training for the 16 to 18 ‘guarantee’ group, supporting the third of young people who leave school without a full level 2 and providing an alternative for the 50% of young people who don’t go to university.  From a productivity perspective, the argument goes that SMEs are the life-blood of the economy and funding for apprenticeships in small businesses needs to be prioritised.

There is merit in these arguments. The problem is that there is a bigger picture to consider. In its recent report, the Learning and Work Institute (LWI) recommended that given the overspend of the levy pot, employers should be restricted in their levy spend on apprenticeships at levels 4 to 7. Such action would enable the apprenticeship levy to be spent on youth training and in SMEs that are far less likely than larger organisations to be able to afford training.

The problem with the LWI’s argument is that it ignores some inconvenient truths.  Apprenticeships are supposed to be the government’s flagship productivity programme, and the occupations where skills gaps and shortages are apparent are frequently at levels 4 to 7, the very levels the LWI wants to restrict spend on.

We then have a public sector. Dominated by large employers, it accounts for a sizeable share of levy payments. Police forces, for example, are increasingly using their levy to fund police constable degree apprenticeships to widen recruitment.  Does the LWI really expect a politician to tell police chief constables they can’t use the force’s levy payments to train police constables, because their levy payments are needed to train young people as hair professionals, or nail technicians in small private businesses? The same argument applies for the NHS and nurses, and local authorities and social workers.

The LWI’s argument ignores some inconvenient truths

Arguments from the skills sector against management apprenticeships also ring hollow.  Allowing employers to spend their levy on management Apprenticeships is a poor use of public funding, the argument goes.  Again, the evidence rather gets in the way.

Firstly, improving management and leadership abilities is a skills priority in the government’s industrial strategy.  Secondly, some of the biggest spenders on management apprenticeships are the same public sector bodies.  Does restricting NHS spending on management apprenticeships to fund SMEs to train their staff really represent a better use of public funding?

We need to remove the blinkers on apprenticeships. Like AELP and AOC, UVAC has argued that the levy should not be used to fund apprenticeships for 16- to 18-year-olds.  Such provision is for all intents and purposes compulsory education and must be funded from general taxation.

Next, government must recognise that the concept of a levy paid by large employers that funds all apprenticeships is fundamentally flawed.  Levy payers will increasingly seek to spend and optimise their levy payments, so there will be an ever-decreasing fund for SMEs. The notion of under-spend from the largest levy payer by far, the NHS, being used to fund apprenticeships in unrelated sectors is as misplaced as a levy paid by a blue-chip manufacturing company funding retail or catering apprenticeships in SMEs.

Government needs to rethink its fiscal policy for apprenticeships for SMEs, and quickly.  Of course, should government make separately funded provision it would want an assurance it was appropriately used, delivering pound the best value and investment in skills.  The surest way of doing this is by increasing the employer co-investment rate. Would a government co-investment rate of 95% for apprenticeships aligned with industrial strategy priorities, and a rate of 75% for all other apprenticeships, not be more appropriate?

Perhaps, the LWI, UVAC, AoC, AELP and other partners should work collectively to argue a unified case for skills? One way or another, we should move on from the “my Apprenticeships are better than yours” argument, to a position where we value and champion all apprenticeship standards.


Your thoughts

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *


  1. Emma Writtle

    The importance of preventing funds from being diverted from lower level apprenticeships is that they support opportunity and progression. Erroneous decisions to make policing or nursing degree occupations were the result of cleverly exerted supply side pressure, i.e. universities with seats to fill and an imperative for market share, rather than any genuine demand from the needs of those jobs. UVAC’s remit extends to naturally promoting the interests of its members, a not insignificant number of which sell low value degrees which do not lead to the skilled and well-paid professional careers historically associated with achieving a higher qualification. These same institutions then extract more money from apprenticeship funding to provide the skills they should have provided in the first place; in effect getting paid twice. In the midst of the nastiest general election campaign that I can remember, even Vice Chancellors ought to be able to discern that what the UK needs is real progression for its neediest and most excluded people, not a consolidation of opportunity for those already doing well.

  2. Hold that vote! Actually, the fact that the role Police Constable has been recognised as a level 6 profession is because the College of Policing analysed the requirements of the job and the evidence was clear to see. If anyone thinks that the complexities of modern policing require only level three skills, they are badly in need of some updating themselves. Get over it, effective public services need higher level skills. Similarly, the best way to realise social mobility is to get more people from under-represented groups into professional jobs. Higher and Degree Apprenticeships In the public sector will help us do this. Let’s get past the self interest and innovate together to enhance social mobility and productivity.

  3. Teresa Frith

    I don’t think anyone believes that police officers or nurses, or even commercial business managers, won’t benefit from high quality training. I equally don’t think anyone would argue that people at different stages of their career path, or with lower levels of academic attainment behind them, or significantly fewer options open to them to develop skills, knowledge and behaviours that will enable them to access a sustainable career won’t benefit from the opportunities that apprenticeships can and have been providing. This is not really the issue at all. The issue is that we don’t appear able (or perhaps it is willing?) to fully state fund it all. So we are now faced with choices – who is most worthy of full state funding for their learning? Should the state (because once you’ve paid the levy, the money – like every tax, actually belongs to the government) fund all training within employment? Some would argue, ‘yes’ – there are people asking that the levy be more flexible and should be spent on things other than apprenticeships. But if we assume that the level of funding will not increase, then we need to face the reality that we can’t fund everything…. so we need to decide what it is that we fully fund, partly fund and don’t fund. And when I say ‘we’ I mean government influenced by the likes of representative bodies for all stakeholders – employers, providers and apprentices, needs to decide.
    As I ponder the question, it seems to me that a lot of what is occurring in apprenticeship world used to be funded in other ways. Nurses were trained to degree level, police constables passed out of Hendon, managers in business studied at higher levels (with and without the support of their employer), firms ran internally funded training programmes for graduates and so on. Now a significant amount of this activity has been or is shifting to apprenticeships and levy funding. When this happened within Train to Gain it was called ‘deadwood’ and resulted in the pulling of the whole programme. And I suspect that, like Train to Gain some of the Apprenticeship provision that is being funded currently also includes genuine ‘deadwood’. Let us hope that the solution that emerges is slightly less draconian! There are hard decisions ahead, I would like to think that we can make the choice based on genuine need, not who pays the tax….. it seems to have been forgotten that the quiet expectation was always that levy payers would also be funding non-levy payers (those who could afford it paying for those who couldn’t – I think there might be precedent for that concept?), or worse determined by who has the loudest voice.
    I am not arguing that any training is unworthy, but that not all worthy training should be funded by the state.