The apprenticeship levy needs to be reformed and education given a central place within apprenticeship policy, according to the University and College Union.
In its Charter for Real Jobs and Apprenticeships, published today, the union states the government’s drive to grow apprenticeships “has too often been at the expense of quality and genuine job creation”.
“The apprenticeship levy, while providing a funding boost for apprenticeships directly from employers, does little to influence where apprenticeship opportunities are, what level they are at, or who can access them,” it says, adding that it has been “too easy for levy paying employers to recoup their payments by rebadging existing training schemes as apprenticeships”.
UCU head of further education Andrew Harden said the government’s reforms had led to many employers simply rebadging existing training rather than opening up new opportunities for education and employment. “Two years on from the introduction of the apprenticeship levy, too many young people still find themselves unable to access the benefits offered by apprenticeships.”
He added: “This charter sets out an alternative vision for the future of apprenticeships which has education at its heart, a strong emphasis on quality, and helps to create real jobs as part of an integrated industrial strategy. The government should scrap its arbitrary numbers target and refocus the apprenticeship programme on opening up genuine opportunities for the workforce of the future.”
The UCU charter explains that because apprenticeships can be taken by people of any age, there are “quick wins” to be had by converting experienced, existing staff into apprentices without creating any additional job opportunities. “Young people, in particular, are disadvantaged by the tendency to create apprentices from incumbents,” according to the union.
“While education for all staff is welcome, there is a question over the effectiveness of the levy if funds are being directed towards senior staff at the expense of hiring new apprentices and creating additional job opportunities.”
No reflection of the importance of education
It adds that the definition of apprenticeships used by the Institute for Apprenticeships and Technical Education as “a job with training to industry standards” does not reflect the central importance of education within apprenticeship programmes.
“Apprenticeships are not just about training for tasks or for specific job roles; they should include a broad education which prepares people for the changing world of work and empowers them to be engaged, adaptable and resilient. There is an important role for wider learning objectives such as rights and responsibilities at work, as well as developing a range of skills such as critical thinking, problem solving and teamwork.”
Concerns about the quality assurance arrangements of both apprenticeships themselves and their endpoint assessments are also raised by the charter, which goes on to say there is no mandatory requirement for qualifications within the new apprenticeship standards – even those at degree level.
“UCU believes that qualifications play an important role in supporting progression, confidence and social inclusion. Graduate professions such as nursing and teaching which are being developed as apprenticeships are at real risk of being deprofessionalised if qualifications are removed.
According to the charter, apprenticeships must offer a clear programme of education and training that “restores the link to occupational identity combined with a broad-based underlying curriculum”.
'Ideal places to foster learning'
Off-site learning is of vital importance throughout the duration of the programme, it adds, with colleges the “ideal places to foster these types of learning”.
“There must be clear transition points available between different levels so apprentices are able to progress more easily to higher levels of education and don’t fall out of learning by default once their initial apprenticeship is complete. We need more work to be done to ensure we are opening up access to higher and degree apprenticeships, and that they aren’t just going to people with existing high-level skills,” says the charter.
It adds it is “essential that the stripping out of qualifications from apprenticeships is reversed”, and “quality assurance arrangements must be urgently reviewed to clarify lines of responsibility, prevent the approval of apprenticeship standards that are too narrow, and ensure tough action is taken when the education provided is not up to scratch”.
'Longer, higher-quality apprenticeships'
A Department for Education spokesperson said: “Thanks to our reforms, apprenticeships are now longer, higher-quality, with more off-the-job training. They offer people of all ages and backgrounds the chance to pursue a career in a range of exciting industries. There are a huge range of apprenticeships to choose from aerospace engineering to nursing, with the opportunity to study right up to degree level.
"Almost two thirds young of people are considering apprenticeships as an option after leaving school. We have also launched a new partnership with five major cities in England to drive up apprenticeships among underrepresented groups and ensure they are accessible to individuals from all backgrounds.”