`Let's not change for the sake of changing'
Colleges fear being squeezed out of the expansion of apprenticeships if the government pushes ahead with proposals to give greater ownership of the programme to employers.
Leaders in the sector have warned that the move could jeopardise the standard of training, with many small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) unable to provide sufficient quality assurance.
The pledge to create 3 million new apprenticeships, first announced last autumn, was a key pillar of the Conservative Party's education plans. It was also first on the list of commitments mentioned by prime minister David Cameron in the speech he gave on his return to Downing Street, fuelling expectations that it will feature prominently in next week's Queen's Speech.
The decision to reappoint Nick Boles - a key ally of Mr Cameron - as skills minister to take the policy through to fruition has also been interpreted as a sign of its importance.
But the Tory manifesto pledged to require more employer accreditation of courses, prompting fears that colleges could be asked to play a subsidiary role in the future.
Ownership and outcomes
Dame Asha Khemka, principal of Vision West Nottinghamshire College, welcomed the commitment to expand apprenticeships, but said that ministers needed to take the views of further education providers into account.
Although large employers were often in a position to ensure training met quality standards, the same could not necessarily be said of SMEs, she claimed.
"The government is trying to ask SMEs to take more ownership of apprenticeships, but our fear is they do not always have the infrastructure to ensure the system works properly," Dame Asha said. "Colleges have a significant role to play and [the government] really needs to listen to people like us."
She pointed out that colleges had delivered half of the apprenticeship programme under the coalition government, adding: "Let's not change things for the sake of changing. It's not about protecting colleges; it's about delivering in the right way so we achieve the outcomes the nation needs."
Martin Doel, chief executive of the Association of Colleges, said recruiting sufficient numbers of SMEs would be one of the major challenges in reaching the target of 3 million apprenticeship starts. Colleges played a key role in bringing groups of employers together to take on shared apprentices, he added.
"Looking after an apprentice and ensuring they have a wide range of experiences is key, but many SMEs don't want the bureaucracy and don't want the responsibility. Colleges can take the heavy lifting out of it," Mr Doel said.
College involvement would help to ensure that apprentices learned industry-standard skills, and not just those specific to one employer, he argued. And employers running their own training should be subject to the same quality thresholds as colleges.
"There is potential for employers to offer the training themselves, but it is not their core business. Colleges will always be the best place to do off-the-job training," Mr Doel said, adding that there was also work to be done to promote apprenticeships as an alternative to studying for a degree.
Education secretary Nicky Morgan announced the creation of an employer-led careers company in December, to offer advice for young people and broker links between schools and businesses. The move came in the wake of concerns that careers advice had deteriorated since responsibility was passed from local authorities to schools in 2012.
Stewart Segal, chief executive of the Association of Employment and Learning Providers, said proposals to give employers a greater role in apprenticeships were also a concern for many small businesses.
"They see the terminology the government is using and they are worried that they will be asked to take on too much," he said. "[SMEs] need to be careful about making sure the commitment they have is manageable."
Mr Segal expected ministers would look again at the proposals to deliver the increase in apprenticeships, and said it was important to get the balance right between SMEs and independent training providers.
Turning a `terrific ambition' into a reality
Peter Mayhew-Smith, principal of Kingston College in West London, says the proposed expansion of apprenticeships represents a "terrific opportunity". But the government needs to provide more detail on how its challenging targets will be met, he argues.
"There are a lot of employers who still don't engage and we need to understand how the numbers are going to increase," Mr Mayhew-Smith says. "Some realism would be helpful to make sure this turns from a terrific ambition into something that is deliverable."
Mr Mayhew-Smith adds that schools need to be on board with the scheme to ensure that it is presented as being of equal value to studying for a degree at university.
"It shouldn't be seen as the route for people who have failed," he insists.