From education to employment

The Purpose of Apprenticeships, the Rationale for the Apprenticeship Levy and the Role of Universities in Skills Provision

Adrian Anderson, Chief Executive, University Vocational Awards Council (UVAC)

Defining what is meant by an ‘apprenticeship’

Let’s start with the purpose of an Apprenticeship. An Apprenticeship is a form of learning. Individuals in employment learn ‘on’ and ‘off’ the job to gain the knowledge, skills and behaviours needed to be occupationally competent for a defined occupation.

The Department for Education’s definition is spot on. If, as Government intends, Apprenticeship is about occupational competence and tackling the skills gaps and shortages in the UK economy then Apprenticeship must be far more than a level 3 programme for young people. An Apprenticeship can therefore apply to a bricklayer (level 2), carpenter and joiner (level 2) to a social worker (level 6), police constable (level 6), digital technology solutions professional (level 6) or advanced clinical practitioner (level 7).

Sure, the historic European model of an Apprenticeship has been focused on level 3 roles. But shouldn’t we look forwards, not backwards, and embrace the concept of Apprenticeship as programmes needed in to develop a high skill, high productivity and high-income economy, instead of insisting such Apprenticeships aren’t Apprenticeships because they are not level 3 programmes?

Shouldn’t we dismiss the false notion that Apprenticeships are only really suitable for school leavers who were unable to reach the academic standards needed to take them to university?

Having Apprenticeships at level 4 to 7 has helped demonstrate that Apprenticeship is an aspirational programme available at all educational levels from level 2 to level 7. A Degree Apprenticeship represents the best of both worlds, a degree and a job and is neither only an academic nor only a vocational programme, but both. Indeed, Degree Apprenticeships are helping challenge the whole notion of the vocational and academic divide. Government, Professional Statutory and Regulatory Bodies (PSRBs), employers and young people get it.

The purpose and goal of the apprenticeship levy

Moving on to the purpose and goal of the Apprenticeship levy, we need to remove the blinkers and develop an accurate understanding of the policy drivers for the introduction of the levy.

Sure, part of the reason for the levy’s introduction was to fund Apprenticeship for young people, but the far bigger driver was the productivity agenda.

Look at any report on the UK’s economic performance and low productivity is almost always seen as a fundamental cause in poor economic growth. As for the reasons for low productivity – low employer investment in the training and development of new and existing employees is usually cited as a key explanatory factor.

The Apprenticeship levy introduced compulsion, but in return Government put employers in the driving seat. Employers under the auspices of the Institute for Apprenticeship and Technical Education have developed the Apprenticeships their businesses and the UK economy need.

In the public sector, Apprenticeships for nursing associates, police constables and social workers are key to the delivery of high quality public services. To claim that such Apprenticeships aren’t Apprenticeships and that scrapping then would save Government money isn’t just untrue, but it’s also offensive.

Criticising employers for using management apprenticeships is bizarre. Read any analysis on the UK’s productivity gap and poor management skills are usually highlighted as a major causal factor. Given Apprenticeship is first and foremost a productivity programme how can employers be criticised when they develop and invest levy payments in, through Apprenticeships, the training and development of their leaders and managers?

Higher education skills provision and quality assurance

Universities have been engaged in the delivery of skills provision for decades, indeed centuries. Many degrees not only deliver the knowledge and skills needed to be competent in a particular occupation, but also in some cases accredit occupational competence – think nursing or social work.

Degrees can’t be excluded from technical and professional education. They like professional qualifications, are a key part of such provision. Ask PSRBs, or look at the requirements to practice in many occupations.

Universities and higher education regulators have worked extensively with PSRBs to develop programmes that accredit occupational competence. Indeed, QAA works with around 90 PSRBs, such as the Nursing and Midwifery Council, RICS, IMechE, ICE etc.

Higher Education regulation, working with appropriate PSRBs, has ensured that we have competent doctors, engineers, scientists, nurses and social workers. In contrast Ofsted inspection has a focus on the quality of lower level training programmes, for example, hairdressers, chefs, business administration and customer service staff.

Government should make a decision on the quality assurance of Apprenticeship on the basis of the views of PSBRs, the expertise and experience of OfS / QAA and Ofsted and should use the best organisation / process for the job. At levels 6 and 7 and arguably 4 and 5, this means OfS/QAA quality regulation and not Ofsted inspection.

There are real issues with the overspend of the Apprenticeship levy, but let’s up the discussion and engage in an evidence-based debate.

Adrian Anderson, Chief ExecutiveUniversity Vocational Awards Council (UVAC) 

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