The government has pledged to deliver 20,000 additional higher apprenticeships in England over the next two years with a £40 million funding boost.
The announcement, revealed in Chancellor George Osborne’s Autumn Statement today, will help put further and higher education on an “equal footing”, said business secretary Vince Cable.
But a move to give employers more control over apprenticeships was branded a potential "disaster" by vocational education specialists City & Guilds.
Higher apprenticeships, which are at levels above A-level standard up to Masters degree equivalent, combine FE, HE and professional qualifications.
Mr Cable said: “My ambition by 2015 is for every school leaver to look at a university degree and a further education degree as different but equal in terms of desirability, future employability and earning potential.”
But adult-education body Niace said this would only happen if employers rise to the challenge.
David Hughes, its chief executive, urged the government to monitor the effect it would have on the numbers of apprenticeships offered in small and medium-sized businesses, and to have contingency plans ready in case of a fall-off in the number of places available.
It was also announced today that in future employers will receive direct funding for apprenticeships from HM Revenue and Customs as part of an effort to put them “in the driving seat” of work-based learning reform.
At the moment, funding goes directly to training providers, but the government will develop a new model giving employers control to make sure they get the training their business needs.
Skills and enterprise minister Matthew Hancock said the reform was “vital” if apprenticeships in England were to become more rigorous and responsive to the needs of employers.
But Chris Jones, City & Guilds chief executive, warned it could put the entire system at risk, saying that would be a "disaster". Employers would decide the extra bureaucracy was “not worth the hassle”, he said.
“The reforms will require additional resource,” he said. “There will be even more hoops to jump through to establish an apprenticeship. Where is the incentive there?
“Employers should certainly be in the driving seat for apprenticeships. But without enough involvement from educators and awarding organisations, the road ahead is bumpy.”
The Association of Employment and Learning Providers (AELP) also warned that many employers would not want to take on the responsibility of directly managing apprenticeship funding.
It urged the government to retain an element of flexibility, allowing employers to choose whether they have direct contracts or work with training providers who manage the funding.
The chancellor also announced changes to traineeships.
In future, young people doing a traineeship will be exempt from the “16 hour” benefit rule, which limits the number of hours training a person can do each week while claiming Jobseeker’s Allowance.
The government said that this will give skills providers and employers greater flexibility to design traineeships that meet individual learners’ needs.
There will also be two new pilot schemes for young jobseekers. In the first, 18-21-year-olds without adequate maths or English qualifications will be required to take training to improve their skills in order to be eligible for Jobseekers Allowance.
The second will require 18-21-year-olds on Jobseeker’s Allowance to undertake a traineeship (or other intensive skills intervention), a work experience placement or a community work placement.