Pro-Vice-Chancellor and Director, School of Management Cranfield University
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Apprenticeship levy: reform is not the answer

6th Jun 2018
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For businesses to thrive, we need apprenticeships to work for everyone – let’s not derail progress with more reform.

The use of the apprenticeships levy for higher level qualifications is a ‘mislabelling’ of courses, according to the recent Reform think-tank report (The great training robbery: assessing the first year of the apprenticeship levy, April 2018), but they couldn’t be more wrong. To many, this looks like an outsider’s view, remote from the realities of business needs.

At the heart of the apprenticeship model is the principle that they are employer-led, employer-funded - a virtuous circle delivered by a programme that’s rooted in specific job roles and the actual work demands of the sector context.

There are obvious benefits to the employer in terms of relevant skills, development and productivity, which in turn encourages them to invest further.

Upskilling employees

Apprenticeships are going to be an important option for more school-leavers, but this isn’t the only urgent need among employers.

Reform’s report adds to the muddled commentary around apprenticeships where they are seen as being exclusively for young people entering the world of work. This commentary does no favours to a younger generation desperately in need of entry-level positions.

The UK’s lack of higher level skills is constraining the UK’s economic growth and apprenticeships can play a key role in addressing this.

The UK is recognised by the OECD as having a ‘long tail’ of low skilled workers. In terms of the proportion of adults with higher level qualifications, and despite the strength of its HE system, the UK is ranked only 11th (OECD, 2015). This means that we have large numbers of employees trapped in lower-level posts and in need of upskilling to play a full part in the digital economy.

At the same time we have employers frustrated by a lack of the right skills at higher levels. Upskilling their workforce will enable experienced employers to move into more senior roles and free up entry-level positions for younger people.

Apprenticeships at every level

The strength of the apprenticeship system is that it works at every level from 16 year-old school leavers without academic qualifications to high-flying middle-managers trying to take the next step up in their career. You can take up a GCSE equivalent apprenticeship with an FE college or you can do a prestigious MBA, at a place like Cranfield. It doesn’t have to be and it shouldn’t be a case of either or.

As Reform says, we should be encouraging more young people into apprenticeships (where appropriate), but for the sake of UK productivity, we should also recognise the role apprenticeships can play in addressing the UK’s desperate need to upskill our existing workforce. The UK’s lack of higher level skills is constraining the UK’s economic growth and apprenticeships can play a key role in addressing this.

Improving management skills

Management skills are an important example of where the UK struggles to further develop mid-career workers.

In its recent report, the Chartered Management Institute has claimed UK organisations lose £84 billion in lost productivity due to poor management. The CBI has identified effective management practices as an important factor explaining the substantial variation in productivity that exists between UK firms.

Poor management is also among the highest contributors to business failure. As a result, there’s significant interest among employers in management-focused apprenticeships.

Driving growth

Given the demand, Cranfield University’s School of Management has responded by radically re-designing its Executive MBA as an apprenticeship, in close collaboration with industry partner Grant Thornton.

For society more generally, higher-level apprenticeships are also a way of levelling the playing field, opening up access to well-paid managerial roles.

The results have been startling, with a substantial increase in student numbers. These student apprentices come from diverse backgrounds, different industries. Many are under 30 years of age, but all have high future potential that their employers recognise and want to invest in.

Higher level apprenticeships are - and increasingly will be - a driver for helping employers address skills needs, getting to the core of the UK’s productivity issues, and encouraging growth.

Levelling the playing field

The real impact and value from the levy will come at degree and Master's level - filling skills gaps in areas like management, engineering, digital and technology solutions, aerospace software development, and even in finance and banking needed for the shift to industry 4.0 models.

For society more generally, higher-level apprenticeships are also a way of levelling the playing field, opening up access to well-paid managerial roles to people who haven’t necessarily come through traditional academic paths and where there might not be a family history of going to university, let alone of benefiting from postgraduate education.

One in seven apprentices on Cranfield’s Executive MBA have come into postgraduate education without having a first degree.

We’re only one year into the levy. The apprenticeships model needs a period of stability to work itself out and to be embedded. It’s too early for a meaningful assessment of the value of the scheme and at this stage the calls for further new reforms look unhelpful.

Whilst some moves to simplify the system would be eagerly welcomed by all parties, proposed changes that confine apprenticeships to GCSE or A level equivalents should and will be strongly resisted by employers who desperately need higher skills to grow their businesses.

For the UK to thrive, we need apprenticeships that work for everyone.

Replies (1)

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By Nick Holmes
20th Jun 2018 16:32

Lynette, great post, easy and enjoyable to read. You made an interesting point about the apprenticeship levy only really working at degree and Master's levels in areas where skill gaps need bridging. But, I think the problem is the perception of who an apprenticeship is for, which will put older people off from doing it. Nonetheless, it'll be interesting to see what happens over the next few years - it doesn't look like the government is going to achieve their optimistic target of 3 million apprenticeship starts.

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