A new round of parliamentary interest in the state of the Apprenticeship system comes at a crucial moment for the implementation of the Apprenticeship reforms in England. With an Education Select Committee Inquiry scheduled for the New Year, I cannot help but be disappointed yet again that politicians and officials continue to look backwards on past approaches to Apprenticeship and skills provision rather than consider the impact of the new Apprenticeship system on productivity and social mobility and the role that universities play in the fastest growing part of the Apprenticeships market: Degree Apprenticeships.

Degree Apprenticeships have and are being developed in key public and private sector occupations; registered nurse, police constable, social worker, teacher, engineer, in digital and technology occupations and in leadership and management. Rather excitingly, Higher Education has responded extremely positively to what has been a migration upwards in the skill level and focus of Apprenticeships.

To deliver Apprenticeships any provider of training must successfully apply to the Education and Skills Funding Agency’s (ESFA) Register of Apprenticeship Training Providers (RoATP). After two openings of the RoATP, around 90 Higher Education Institutions (HEIs), from across all university mission groups, had successfully applied and were able to deliver Apprenticeships to Levy paying employers (initially). After the third opening of the RoATP in late 2017 I expect that there will be over 100 higher education institutions able to deliver Apprenticeships from early 2018.

It is true that for decades Higher Education hasn’t been a full partner in the development and delivery of Apprenticeship provision.

In the 1950s and 1960s this was understandable – higher education was for the minority and demand for Apprenticeships focused on semi-skilled and skilled occupations, typically, in the engineering, manufacturing and construction sectors.

Of course, the world and UK economy of today is very different to the 1950s and 1960s, as indeed is the higher education sector. To compete internationally the UK needs a highly skilled workforce able to adapt, innovate and constantly develop new skills across all industries and occupations. Through the Apprenticeship Reforms introduced in 2013 employers have been given responsibility for the development of Apprenticeships. Through a trailblazing process involving employers of all sizes and from across all industries, Apprenticeship has been pushed upwards in terms of skill and occupational level – to the point where around a third or more of Apprenticeship standards have and are being developed at higher education level.

It’s not just the number of HEIs that have signed-up to the Apprenticeship agenda that’s impressive. HEIs have invested considerably in Apprenticeship development. HEIs have set up Apprenticeship teams to work with employers, Local Enterprise Partnerships, local colleges and independent training providers. HEIs aren’t just focusing on the delivery of training programmes, but they’re also working with employers to maximise the potential of Apprenticeships to increase the skills and productivity of both new recruits and existing employees. University engagement in Apprenticeships will also lead to the development of new work-based routes to and through higher education to higher and professional level occupations. The success or otherwise of Degree Apprenticeships will be a key determinant in whether the Apprenticeship Reforms and the Apprenticeship Levy have a positive or adverse impact on both productivity and social mobility.

At one level the engagement of HEIs in the Apprenticeship agenda is not surprising. The higher education sector has an established track record of delivering work-based learning programmes and working with employers, professional bodies and regulators to accredit occupational competence. Indeed, business engagement and the development and delivery of work-based higher education programmes linked to local and regional skills needs is central to the mission of many universities. Universities also have a long history of working in partnership with others, particularly employers, regulators, professional bodies and colleges to raise skills levels and encourage investment in the workforce.

The potential of having over 100 higher education institutions engaged in Apprenticeships is, I believe, a significant milestone. Which is why it’s so disappointing to observe that the Education Select Committee Inquiry, in its call for evidence on the quality of apprenticeship and skills training, is still focused on historic patterns of provision and problems with the old delivery system.

Prior to the Apprenticeship Reforms, under both main political parties a fundamental flaw in skills policy was the assumption that ‘skills’ was synonymous with ‘further education’. Of course, further education has a fundamental role to play, but the past exclusion of higher education meant that approaches to skills focused predominately on lower level skills provision rather than the skills provision the country needs to compete internationally. Bizarrely the ‘skills’ predecessor of the Education and Skills Funding Agency, the Skills Funding Agency was nothing of the sort, but instead defined its role to fund ‘skills training for further education in England’.

With a significant proportion of HEIs on the Register of Apprenticeship Training Providers, ESFA has the potential to actually become an Education and ‘Skills’ Funding Agency and manage a skills system that engages both further and higher education. Not doing so impedes the development of new work-based progression routes through Apprenticeships which open up access to under-represented cohorts of individuals to technical, professional and managerial occupations.

In the future employers will, if the Apprenticeship Reforms are followed through, have a full range of Apprenticeships they have developed to use – from level 2 (GCSE level) programmes through to Degree Apprenticeships incorporating bachelor’s and master’s degrees. Employers will also be able to choose the Apprenticeships that are of must benefit to their businesses and select the university, college or independent training provider that they consider are best able to meet their needs.

Notwithstanding considerable challenges the future for HEI engagement in Apprenticeships is bright IF Government looks forward and ensures the employer remains in ownership of Apprenticeship development and employers are unhindered in deciding which Apprenticeships to develop and purchase. If Government sticks to the Apprenticeship Reforms as intended, higher education will play a pivotal role in ensuring Degree Apprenticeships open-up and support progression to professional and managerial occupations to those who simply haven’t had such opportunities in the past and compliment the historic full-time university route. Only then can the twin policy objectives of Apprenticeships, raising productivity and enhancing social mobility, be realised.

Mandy Crawford-Lee, Director of Policy and Operations, University Vocational Awards Council

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