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Five Asks of the New Secretary of State Nadhim Zahawi and Minister of Apprenticeships and Skills Alex Burghart

Mandy Crawford-Lee, Director of Policy and Operations and Chief Executive Designate, UVAC

UVAC is the national not for profit HE representative organisation for Higher Education Institutions committed to the higher-level vocational agenda. 

We have over 80 HEIs from all mission groups in membership.

As I pick up the role as UVAC’s chief executive from 1 October, succeeding Adrian Anderson, I want to set out Five Asks of the New Secretary of State, Nadhim Zahawi, MP and Minister of Apprenticeships and Skills, Alex Burghart, MP: 

1. Apprenticeships are a Success Story so do not Deviate Too Much from Current Policy

Apprenticeship is an all age and all level programme and should remain so. In the public sector employers are using Higher and Degree Apprenticeships to train the new Police Officers, Nursing Associates, Registered Nurses and Social Workers that society needs.

In the private sector Higher and Degree Apprenticeships are being used to train the engineers, digital specialists, scientists and manufacturing and construction professionals needed by businesses to raise productivity and compete internationally. At craft level Apprenticeships are enabling businesses recruit young people and provide a bridge between school and work and train and develop new and existing employees for occupations where skills shortages and gaps are apparent.

Apprenticeships are no longer perceived as the choice for other people’s children. Of course, limited changes could make the Apprenticeship system work better; more effective levy transfer, greater flexibility for sectors and SMEs that have found it difficult to engage in Apprenticeship and more ability for employers to specify mandatory degrees in Apprenticeship. Government is, however, already implementing such changes. The mantra should be evolution and not revolution.  

2. Retain Funding for Applied General Qualifications (e.g., BTEC, Cambridge Nationals)

UVAC fully supports T Levels. The removal of funding for Applied Generals will not, however, support the successful roll out of T Levels. T Levels are an entirely different and welcome new offer requiring extensive high quality work placements and are for individuals with a clear interest and ambition in a career in a specific sector or field.

Applied Generals provide an alternative and enable individuals not wanting to follow A levels or unsure of the career they want to follow a programme that best meets their needs. Applied Generals have supported substantial numbers of learners access higher education and have a proven record in widening access and participation. Applied Generals also have a key role in supporting progression to HE in what many would regard as priority occupational areas: health and social care being a good example.

Removal of funding for Applied Generals given it is estimated that in England around 259,000 young people are studying them will undermine the activities of many universities to support social mobility and widen participation and in turn negatively impact on the Government’s Levelling Up agenda.

3. Expand Higher Technical Education on the Basis of Skills Needs, but Not at the Expense of Level 6 Provision 

Many of the key job roles in society and the economy are at level 6, 7 and 8 – in health, science, artificial intelligence, digital technology, engineering. Indeed, IfATE have approved employer developed occupational standards for 182 occupations and professions at level 6 and 7.

Our NHS needs doctors, clinicians, healthcare practitioners, registered nurses, nursing associates as well as a plethora of key roles at lower levels. Government should support the expansion of higher technical education and higher technical qualifications where such provision is needed in the economy, but not at the expense of level 6 and 7 programmes including bachelor’s and master’s degrees.

Development of level 4 and 5 provision could also support progression to level 6 programmes, particularly for many under-represented cohorts. To develop a highly skilled economy level 6, 7 and 8 skills are fundamental.

4. Dismiss the Concept that there are Academic and Vocational Choices

The choice is not either an Apprenticeship or university or an academic or vocational programme. Such ideas perpetuate the academic and vocational divide. The fastest growing type of Apprenticeship is Degree Apprenticeship where, in the integrated model, a degree is used to deliver and accredit the knowledge, skills and behaviours specified by the Apprenticeship Standard.

Since their introduction, Degree Apprenticeships have introduced a new highly aspirational choice: a degree and an apprenticeship (job) in one package. Not a vocational or an academic choice, but a high quality vocational and academic programme; a programme that in all likelihood will become the most prominent form of higher-level work-based provision and is already highly valued by employers, individuals and higher education institutions alike.

Universities have for decades, indeed centuries, delivered vocational programmes. Particularly at higher levels vocational programmes require high academic standards and excellent knowledge is essential to good practice.

The challenge should be to develop high quality programmes where blended approaches are used to develop practice through the integration of academic and practical learning and, in terms of employer-sponsored, work-integrated programmes, where the connectedness of learning is emphasised rather than academic and workplace learning undertaken in parallel but totally independent of each other.

5. Value the Role of All Providers, HE and FE in the Delivery of Skills Programmes

Ensuring individuals, employers, the economy and society have the skills programmes needed will require the full engagement of all providers, colleges, independent training providers and universities.

Government needs to ensure all providers, working with employers and Professional, Statutory and Regulatory Bodies (PSRBs) can deliver the skills the country needs. Too often skills policy has been synonymous with further education and skills programmes with lower-level provision.

Government needs to develop an inclusive and comprehensive approach to post 18 learning where policies and programmes are not developed in isolation but based on economic and societal priorities.

It is now the case that through the UK Government’s apprenticeship reforms, a clear policy intent and the hard work of higher education providers, the skills system in England has those ranked among the foremost universities in the world, now engaged in its delivery, alongside colleges and independent training providers.

Mandy Crawford-Lee, Director of Policy and Operations and Chief Executive Designate, UVAC

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