There are four areas of focus that the government needs to consider in establishing its plans for apprenticeships after 2020, the year the current target of 3 million starts expires. It needs to start with: a fresh definition of what an apprenticeship is; improve access and progression; decide what role apprenticeships play in the wider industrial strategy; and have a long-term plan for the supply side to deliver the quality needed.
In fact, we don’t need a fresh definition of an apprenticeship; the government’s own 2012 Review of Apprenticeships offers a clear one: "Apprenticeships should be clearly targeted at those who are new to a job or role that requires sustained or substantial training. There should be recognised industry standards at the heart of apprenticeships [...] at a high occupational level relevant to the employer."
That definition seems to have been lost in the drive for 3 million starts and the handing over of full control to employers. These factors have resulted in a worrying rise in apprentices aged 25 and over, and MBAs and other in-house training being rebadged as apprenticeships.
That definition of "a new job or role" then helps to frame the second issue – fair access. There have been substantial sums of money spent on access in higher education and hardly any in apprenticeships. The results include lower levels of black, Asian and minority ethnic and disabled apprentices overall and longstanding gender stereotyping, all of which need to be addressed.
Fair access is not enough, though, because the lack of progression routes from standards is a real worry, too. We need a proper assessment of progression and outcomes for apprentices, particularly from a fairness point of view. Every apprentice should be able to plot their potential career path from wherever they start, up to the highest levels of learning and jobs. I’d be far more supportive of degree apprenticeships if there were clear paths to them from entry-level apprenticeship standards.
A new definition, better access and progression would support better outcomes for apprentices, but the government must also invest in the programme as part of its industrial strategy. And yet, it has no lever currently to ensure that the significant investment supports priority industry sectors, productivity and regions that it wants to help improve. The focus on 3 million starts is wholly unhelpful and it is inconceivable that 19,000 individual, large-employer decisions would ever deliver the skills needed for a sustainable economy. There are too many short-term self-interests and perverse incentives for that to happen.
The severe drop in numbers in the care sector is a good case in point. The economics of running a care home business means that it’s tough to adhere to the (correct) 20 per cent off-the-job training requirement and to pay the 10 per cent contribution, so numbers have plummeted. But training is still needed, so what can the government do about it? Top-slicing the underspent levy fund would help them invest in the training that would-be care staff need, but that’s not an option now.
Supply side issues
The fourth issue is the near-complete disregard for how colleges and providers fare in this programme. The introduction of the levy has seriously hit cashflow and income due to the drop in starts and the increased bureaucracy. Both might be short-term issues but both seriously undermine the confidence needed to invest in facilities, equipment, expert staff and developing relationships with employers. The short-term contracts for non-levy hardly help that confidence and that return-on-investment horizon.
The apprenticeship programme needs a new long-term strategy with a focus on the industries, people and regions that will help to deliver a stronger and sustainable economy with better jobs and good pay. The strategy needs to offer colleges and providers the confidence and the support to invest in the off-the-job training spaces, equipment and people who can deliver world-class quality. An important first step would be for the government to abandon the 3 million starts target and engage all stakeholders to discuss what’s working and what needs to happen.
David Hughes is chief executive of the Association of Colleges