From education to employment

The Importance of Both University and Apprenticeship Programmes

mandy crawford-lee

Dr Mandy Crawford-Lee discusses the importance of a comprehensive skills policy that supports both university education and apprenticeship programs. She argues that cutting university funding for apprenticeships is misguided, and emphasises the need for employers to invest more in training across all ages and levels to boost UK productivity and economic growth.

I have just about had time to consider the recent anti-levy rhetoric coming out of The Times, @alicettimes, declaring the ‘apprentice scheme’ (when was England’s flagship skills programme last called that, circa 1995?) “isn’t working for anyone” where I am reminded, yet again, that the original core principles and benefits of the levy are being overlooked in the quest for headline change, when I am having to explore, newly, the implications of the recent Conservative Party pledge.

Cutting University Funding to Boost Apprenticeships is Not the Answer

My view? Suggesting cuts to university provision to fund an extra 100,000 apprenticeship places as Rishi Sunak proposes is not the way forward. England needs both world-class university provision and an excellent apprenticeship programme, if we want to raise business performance, productivity and economic performance. The Conservatives are wrong to portray university and apprenticeship as an either/or – they are not. Degree apprenticeships are also NOT an alternative to university. Degree apprenticeships combine a degree and an apprenticeship and ARE a route to access the professions, highly skilled and higher paid careers. 

Skills Policy Must Address All Ages, Levels, and Types of Provision

If we want a high skill, high productivity and high-income economy, skills policy must be about ALL AGES, ALL LEVELS and ALL TYPES of provision. This means that providers of all types are central to skills and apprenticeship policy, higher education institutions and universities as well as further education colleges and independent training providers. 

So, any future government that wants to raise business performance and productivity must engage with and utilise the strengths of the university sector to train and develop the skills of the current and future workforce.We need to celebrate not denigrate our university sector.  If the Conservatives are serious about tackling the UK’s low productivity and grow the economy, they need to utilise the expertise of our universities, of all types and sizes, to develop the higher-level skills of the current and future workforce.

Skills Policy is Key to Addressing Low Productivity

Strategically, a successful skills policy is a must for the future Westminster Government. Skills policy has for generations been a massive but under-valued and under-utilised productivity dynamo, housed in obscure parts of the Whitehall estate. Skills has been a Cinderella policy brief, yet it is a core solution to the UK’s central economic challenge of low productivity. One could add that effective skills policy is essential to recruiting and training the nurses and adult and social healthcare professionals our NHS needs, as well as new police constables, social workers and teachers. 

Focusing on Upskilling the Existing Workforce is Essential

The second must have for the new government is to determine what focus and action is needed to raise skills levels to increase productivity. Some providers and their representative bodies will argue for the focus to be on young people and lower levels of skills training, often at the expense of other types of provision. Everyone will agree that 18 and 19-year-olds need to be properly trained to enter the workforce. If however, government wants to raise productivity, it needs a specific focus on the existing workforce. A poorly skilled 25- or 30-year-old without training, will have a forty-year poorly skilled working life in front of them.

More Investment in Training is Needed

My final point is that we need a serious discussion about money. British employers need to spend more on training and yet, sometimes, policy does not reflect this fact. The consultation on the Advanced British Standard (ABS) noted that, “A third of our national productivity growth over the last two decades is explained by improvements in skills levels across the workforce.” This is an important statistic. It must however, be understood in context. In March 2024 the New Economics Foundation reported that employers spending on employee training was a fifth less than a decade ago. So where would productivity be if employer spend on training had not declined but, rather, had increased? This is where the conversation pre-General Election should be focused. Not to, in policy terms, is just a lot of “Mickey Mouse”.

By Dr Mandy Crawford-Lee FRSA, Chief Executive, University Vocational Awards Council (UVAC)

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