The education secretary has demanded a review into the controversial MBA apprenticeship “to safeguard the integrity of the apprenticeship brand and value for money of the levy.”

The letter, sent today from Gavin Williamson to the new boss at the Institute for Apprenticeships, Jennifer Coupland, sets 1 June as a deadline for determining whether the level 7 senior leader standard will continue to be funded.

The letter comes less than a month after Coupland told FE Week that public funding for management apprenticeships is “perfectly legitimate”.

Coupland was calling on the government to find an extra £750 million to invest in apprenticeships for small employers, those that do not pay the levy.

When asked about the spiraling cost of the controversial management apprenticeships she said: “It is not government money, it comes from the levy that was levied directly to support apprenticeships.”

The Department for Education told FE Week 34 of their staff are currently studying towards the apprenticeship MBA.

The then-director of the DfE’s National Apprenticeship Service, Sue Husband, told a House of Lords enquiry in 2018 she was on a level 6 chartered management degree apprenticeship and was finding it “hugely beneficial”. She confirmed to FE Week this morning she was carrying on the apprenticeship with her new employer.

FE Week was first to report, back in 2016, that management apprenticeships were already the third most popular, proving to be “unstoppable” and would likely “rocket to the top spot once the apprenticeship levy kicks in next year.”

In early 2019, our analysis found management taking the top-spot,  including 1,220 starts on the level 7 MBA. 

The levy is paid to the Treasury, which means it is technically public funding, and its use for management qualifications has come under criticism from Ofsted’s chief inspection, Amanda Spielman, who said “we see levy funding subsidising re-packaged graduate schemes and MBAs that just don’t need it”.

The National Audit Office last year reported that these “new types of apprenticeship raise questions about whether public money is being used to pay for training that already existed in other forms”.

And more than a year ago, the then skills minister, Anne Milton, told the chief executive of the Association of Colleges David Hughes: “We will need to look ahead, when the system is really running well – and I think we’re nearly at that stage – when we need to look at do we continue to fund apprenticeships for people who are already in work, people doing second degrees.”

In a statement to the media that accompanied the letter, Williamson said: “The levy funds apprenticeships for businesses of all sizes, helping people of all ages and backgrounds make the most of their talents.

“I am committed to maintaining an employer-led system, but I’m not convinced the levy should be used to pay for staff, who are often already highly qualified and highly paid, to receive an MBA.

“I’d rather see funding helping to kick-start careers or level up skills and opportunities. That’s why I’ve asked for a review of the senior leader apprenticeship standard to ensure it is meeting its aims.”

Read Gavin Williamson’s letter in full:

Dear Jennifer,

I know the Institute and its Board share my commitment for apprenticeships to support learners to develop and progress and employers to build a talent pipeline and increase the productivity of their business.

I am absolutely determined to make sure levy funds are being used to support the people that can benefit most from an apprenticeship, such as those starting out in their careers or helping more people from disadvantaged backgrounds to get ahead, and that we ensure good value for money in the apprenticeships offer. My officials will be working closely with you through the Spending Review process to make sure that we achieve that balance.

In that context, I am unconvinced that having an apprenticeship standard that includes an MBA paid for by the levy is in the spirit of our reformed apprenticeships or provides value for money. I question whether an MBA is an essential regulatory or professional requirement to work in this field of senior leadership. It is of the utmost importance for the integrity of the programme and the apprenticeships brand that each and every standard meets our highest possible expectations. I recognise that looking again at this standard may be unpopular with some levy payers. Whilst respecting the decisions that employers make about which apprenticeships and apprentices are best for their organisation, I am of the view that we absolutely need to safeguard the integrity of the apprenticeship brand and value for money of the levy.

Therefore, I am asking the Institute, as the body responsible for the quality and content of those standards, to bring forward a formal review of the Senior Leader Level 7 standard. You should ensure that the standard meets the current policy intent and rules, including the mandatory qualifications policy, and provides value for money.

I have every confidence that notwithstanding your range of priorities you will be able to take forward this review with your employer-led groups at pace. Therefore, I look forward to hearing back from you by 1 June about the outcome of your considerations.

I am copying this letter to Antony Jenkins, Chair of the Institute.

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