There has been general agreement for decades that many employers should do more to train their own staff. Policymakers are now responding by imposing an Apprenticeship Levy and also by encouraging universities to offer new Degree Apprenticeships.
In fact universities and employers have had a long-standing and key role delivering professional and technical education. For example, Employer Sponsored Degrees are perhaps the original “earn while you learn” degree courses in which employees undertake degree level study on a part time basis (usually one day a week). Employees are salaried, with the employer paying the degree course tuition fees, giving time off for study and providing work based training. They are a great way to provide job-ready skills alongside an academic qualification. They deliver higher productivity for employers and higher wages for individuals. At London South Bank University we have nearly 1000 employer partners sponsoring over 6500 students each year.
I am very supportive of the modern (including Higher and Degree) apprenticeships. However, I believe that policy makers in BIS and in the Treasury in particular should look at the programmes that have the same objective and already work and allow them to thrive, rather than (as it seems) simply risking what already works for the sake of new initiatives.
Whilst the government has a £3bn target for the levy and a 3 million target for Apprenticeships, there is apparently no target for Higher and Degree Apprenticeships, nor any regional or sector targets. There are however already 100,000 degree students sponsored in much needed technical areas like engineering and construction where employers are crying out for skilled employees. I believe that anything that puts that kind of up-skilling in jeopardy needs further and detailed consideration.
One risk of the levy is that some high quality forms of training may be cut by employers simply because they are not eligible for levy funding. There is a risk too that employers are inadvertently driven away from supporting high quality skills development due to the practical difficulties posed by the system.
Will employers choose to curb existing training to deal with the extra cost and bureaucracy required for apprenticeships? Will they choose to set up new low level apprenticeships and cut their investment in established professional and technical training? Will they just pay the levy as a tax and claw it back from existing HR budgets with a net loss in training? Or will they choose to spend the levy on new high quality professional and technical education over and above their existing commitments? Who knows? But with only a few thousand degree apprenticeship starts so far we seem to be putting all our eggs in one untested basket.
Perhaps this would be a good time to put discussions about the levy itself behind us and for government, employers and universities to make sure that we spend £3bn in the most productive way, while allowing employers real choice in how they do that.
Independent views in this blog are shared by Professor David Phoenix, Vice-Chancellor of London South Bank University