Is the apprenticeship levy a big deal? Definitely maybe

Matt Hamnett (pictured), principal of North Hertfordshire College, outlines the pitfalls and potential of the government's planned levy of employers

In less than 18 months a new apprenticeship levy will be imposed on large employers, changing the landscape of further education and apprenticeships beyond recognition. Definitely? Maybe.

When thinking about how big a deal the levy might be, it’s worth asking: why now? Levies aren’t a new idea. We had them in most sectors for the two decades up to the early 1980s. A couple still exist, in the construction and engineering sectors. In the 2003 skills strategy White Paper, the Labour government promised to support the development of new sector-based levies on a voluntary basis. Lord Leitch offered equivocal support for the same in his 2006 review, and the government followed suit in its 2007 White Paper (I know, I wrote it). The brilliantly Yes Minister talk of the time was of “post voluntarism” if employers didn’t get their act together and invest in skills.

So, have ministers finally tired of employers’ failure to recognise the way that skills drive productivity, which drives profitability and growth? Maybe. Or is the government just skint and in desperate need of new ways to fund tertiary education? Definitely. Are levies a proven policy measure, guaranteed to change behaviour? At best, maybe.

The evidence is pretty patchy. There hasn’t been a serious evaluation of the old industry training board regime. Evidence from overseas (France, Quebec, Malaysia and Australia have all operated levy regimes at some point) suggests a series of flaws, issues and risks.

For me, is the levy a big deal? Definitely. Will it change everything? Maybe.

This is an edited version of an article in the 20 November edition of TES. Subscribers can view the full version of this story here

Read the full piece by Matt Hamnett in this week's TES magazine, available in all good newsagents. To download the digital edition, Android users can click here and iOS users can click here

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