One ironic outcome of the Conservatives’ election victory has been the number of government policies that were espoused by Labour, or easily could have been. The apprenticeship levy – whereby, in effect, employers with annual payrolls of more than £3 million will pay a (reclaimable) 0.5 per cent levy to the government – is a case in point. If Labour had introduced such a measure, the business lobby and the right-wing press would have been up in arms. As it is, although there has been a good deal of grumbling from the CBI and others, there seems to be a general acceptance of the measure. But what is it intended to achieve, and will it meet its aims?
The government’s declared objective is to increase the amount of training so that by 2020, 3 million apprenticeships will have been created across the country. There is a general recognition that British firms’ investment in education and training leaves a good deal to be desired. International surveys repeatedly show the UK at or near the bottom of the skills development league.
It needs only the rumour of an economic recovery for complaints about skills shortages to surface. On some surveys, the amount of employer-funded training has actually fallen since the late 1990s, at a time when corporate profitability and savings have increased.
Various voluntary schemes, such as those promoted in the 2006 Leitch report, have made little difference. Nor have quite generous tax incentives. Will compulsion do the trick, after supply-side reforms have so far failed?
To begin with, the levy only applies to larger firms and it is unclear how smaller ones will respond: they are also having to cope with pension auto-enrolment and a significant increase in the national minimum wage. There are the obvious difficulties: dead weight (firms rebadging jobs as apprenticeships to meet their targets and reclaim the levy, when we know that many existing “apprenticeships” are just conversions of existing jobs); quality (the amount of spend per apprenticeship is only sufficient to pay for low-quality places, unless employers are willing to contribute more); and the mismatch between apprenticeship supply and demand. The supply has so far mainly been at lower skill levels when it is higher-level skills that are increasingly needed.
This, indeed, is one reason why, in spite of the fact that a levy scheme has operated in the sector for many years, two-thirds of construction firms are reported to be suffering from skill shortages.
It has also been suggested that some employers will respond by cutting other spending on workforce training and development and/or on wages, which are still only recovering from the 2008 financial crisis.
Comments have also been made about the amount of bureaucracy that is involved in companies paying money to the government, receiving vouchers for the same amount, using them to pay training providers, and the latter then exchanging these for money from the government.
Finally, it has been pointed out that while the levy is intended to raise £3 billion each year, the Treasury is planning to spend only £900 million on apprenticeships by 2020: is crafty chancellor George Osborne raising revenue by every means that he can without increasing personal taxes?
Better use of funds
All this suggests that a scheme that includes an element of compulsion but is targeted at sectors, areas and types of firm where there is an acute, unsupplied need for higher-level skills – with the initiative closely monitored for numbers, quality and value for money by an independent agency such as the National Audit Office – would be a much better use of the public and private resources involved than a blanket levy.
It would be even better if such a scheme were part of a national strategy to improve the quantity and quality of education and training for all those in – or likely to be employed in – productive work in both the private and the public sectors. What might such a strategy look like? A good start would be to improve the information that we actually have about apprenticeships – not only the actual numbers after allowing for “starts” and “conversions”, but also the numbers of and the types of participating employers.
Another step forward for the government would be to ensure that all apprentices receive the current minimum wage (and, in future, the national living wage).
But the real issue is whether and how far the aim of increasing apprenticeship numbers meshes in with other policies to support the vocational progression of learners.
For example, is it sensible to focus declining levels of state support on apprentices when other areas of adult skills – lower level qualifications, older or redundant workers seeking retraining, the growing numbers of selfemployed, etc – are being cut?
Why expand apprenticeships when traineeships – at around 20,000 a year – are lagging so far behind? Why not reform post-14 qualifications to create a genuine baccalaureate system, with academic, technical and work-based pathways replacing existing horizontal qualifications? Why not create common educational institutions post-16, or even post-14?
There is plenty of evidence to suggest that tertiary systems – where every student progresses to a single institution after 16 – are both fairer and more efficient than mixed or all-through ones. Such systems also facilitate progression to further education or training because there is only one kind of educational institution with which employers and training providers have to deal, and (as they are comprehensive) there is less likelihood of vocational studies being looked down upon in favour of academic courses.
Finally, one important difference between the UK and many other major EU countries is the relative weakness of most employer bodies. In Scandinavia, France and Germany, chambers of commerce and similar organisations link local employers with educational institutions and students.
This is partly about culture but it is also about incentives. Why not strengthen the capacity of smaller and medium-sized firms, in particular, to work with colleges and other training providers by legislating to give chambers of commerce or other local business bodies the ability to make a compulsory charge on local firms to meet their running costs and those of local training and other productivity initiatives?
That really would be a U-turn worth making.
Roger Brown is emeritus professor of higher education policy at Liverpool Hope University and chair of Barton Peveril Sixth Form College in Eastleigh, Hampshire
Apprenticeships in numbers
apprenticeships in England:
starts during the last Parliament
Target starts for the current Parliament
invested in apprenticeships by the government in 2014-15
funded apprentices in 2014-15
Apprenticeships are available in 1,500 job roles, covering more than 170 industries
More than 250,000 employer workplaces had at least one apprentice in 2014-15