“The term ‘degree’ is protected in legislation and protecting the term ‘apprenticeship’ in the same way will help to ensure that apprenticeships are viewed with the same regard as higher education.”
So said the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills (Bis) this week, in its response to the consultation on its plans to enshrine the term apprenticeship in law.
Will this finally achieve the long-stated ambition of parity of esteem? Not a chance.
This is not to say that everyone in FE should stop striving to meet this goal. By announcing its target to create 3 million apprenticeships by 2020, the government gave the route of work-based training a much-needed shot in the arm – and a public show of confidence that goes some way to enhance its reputation.
But the Bis response (bit.ly/BisApprenticeship) reveals both the good intentions behind the government’s drive to expand apprenticeships – and the muddled thinking that underpins it.
As the document points out, the proposed move would “still enable employers to offer their own, fully funded apprenticeships”. “This would mean that, whilst training providers would be prevented from labelling other training as an apprenticeship, we would not be introducing new burdens on employers,” it continues.
To put it simply, colleges and training providers would only be able to use the title “apprenticeship” for an official, government-funded programme. Any of them flouting the new law could face a fine and a trip to the Magistrates’ Court. It’s hard to find a solid argument against this as a means of clamping down on misuse of the term, which would inevitably undermine the entire programme.
But employers are free to use the term to describe any form of internal training they wish. The main reason? The price. Bis believes “the potential costs of doing so would outweigh the benefits”.
It continues: “There are many employers that offer high-quality apprenticeships of their own and we do not want to prohibit this practice, nor do we want to put in place any measures that could be perceived as burdensome or put off employers from offering apprenticeships.”
The double standards on show are remarkable. While no one in their right mind would want to obstruct high-quality apprenticeships, the statement fails to acknowledge that this approach means employers are free to offer as many low-quality “apprenticeships” as they like.
To the average person applying for a job, it beggars belief to think that their first question at interview will be: “Is this a real apprenticeship?”
In vowing to crack down on the misselling of apprenticeships, the government claimed it was keen to “make sure that everyone can have confidence that an apprenticeship is a high-quality route consisting of employment with training”.
But by allowing employers to toss the term around at will, the government has undermined its own efforts. If it is to be fair to the training providers and colleges that offer genuine apprenticeships, the government must ensure that employers play by the same rules.