David Willett, Corporate Director at The Open University

The Party Conference season in England is now over for another year and while #Brexit debate continues to prevail across parties, in the fringes we found ongoing debate on the future of vocational and skills policy and the assessment of the delivery of the apprenticeship levy policy in England. 

As training providers, we’re all well aware of the stumbling blocks that the levy has faced. But while it’s not without its issues, the industry largely recognises the opportunity it presents for creating a highly-skilled workforce.

So what needs to be done to help the levy fulfil its purpose?

Understanding the challenges

The CBI recently launched its Learning on the Job: Improving the Apprenticeship Levy report, which echoes a number of concerns raised by the large and small businesses we work with at The Open University.


Having faced initial teething problems, the CBI is primarily calling for a period of stability for apprenticeships in England and to let the levy ‘bed in’.

In addition, the CBI also called for greater transparency around levy receipts and expenditure, to make the system more user-friendly, additional funding from HMG to ensure firms can still provide apprenticeships for all ages and levels, and to consult on options post 2020, which reflects the sentiments of the organisations we work with at the OU.

As a contributor to the CBI’s report, the OU is aware of the challenges that levy-paying businesses face when it comes to making the most of the levy in England, and making the system more transparent and flexible is certainly a step in the right direction.

But here at The Open University – with our national reach and subsequent ability to build partnerships and take a collaborative approach, there may be a few more areas which could be explored in greater detail.

In order to be truly comprehensive, and to meet the needs of organisations and workers alike, apprenticeship policy needs to be looked at in the round, as part of the wider Post-16 skills landscape.

England needs a broad approach to lifelong learning with a skills strategy, which includes apprenticeships at all levels and for all ages.

Making the levy work

Plus any skills strategy must remain employer-led, which is why I welcome the new announcement from the Secretary of State at Party Conference on the creation of a Skills and Productivity Board.

The OU’s most recent business survey (The Open University Business Barometer 2019) has found that management and digital skills remain the most sought-after, and difficult to recruit for across industries.

Flexibility means different things to different people

Secondly, ‘flexibility’ around the levy is a term that is used a lot – and it means different things to different people.

We would suggest that this includes ideas such as:

  • Modular apprenticeships
  • More stop-off routes, and
  • Better promotion of the existing levy rules which permit more flexible approaches for example part-time apprenticeships.

The future lies in greater collaboration

But in the immediate, providers have a role to play building partnerships across the sector, between FE, private training providers and employers. Partnership work is a crucial way in opening up the levy, and where we can, we have already been doing this through our collaboration with FE in validating apprenticeship programmes.

The future lies in greater collaboration: my plea having digested the CBI’s report is that employers and providers need to work together to make the levy work for the employers it serves and demonstrate its value – from driving social mobility to increasing productivity.

So with employment levels at an all-time high, and with possible changes to the labour market as a result of Brexit, employers must continue to respond and adapt to challenges and articulate the skills they need, and Governments and training providers can respond accordingly.

This truly enables firms – large and small – to grow their own talent, bring in new apprentices and diversify their workforces. 

David Willett, Corporate Director at The Open University

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