The Reform think-tank report The great training robbery: assessing the first year of the apprenticeship levy claims the use of the apprenticeships levy for higher qualifications is a “mislabelling” of courses. But this just 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 and 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. Apprenticeships are going to be an important option for more school leavers, but this isn’t the only urgent need among employers.
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 higher education 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.
Yes, as Reform says, we should be encouraging more young people into apprenticeships, where appropriate, but for the sake of UK productivity, we should recognise the role apprenticeships can play in addressing the UK’s desperate need to upskill our existing workforce as well. Management skills are an important example of where the UK struggles to further develop mid-career workers.The CBI has identified effective management practices as an important factor in explaining the substantial variation in productivity that exists between UK firms.
As a result, there’s significant interest among employers in management-focused apprenticeships. And given the demand, our School of Management has responded by radically re-designing its Executive MBA as an apprenticeship, in close collaboration with industry partner Grant Thornton, leading to a substantial increase in student numbers. These student apprentices come from diverse backgrounds, different industries. Many are under 30 years old, but all have high future potential that their employers recognise and want to invest in. 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 reforms look unhelpful. While 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.
Professor Lynette Ryals is pro vice chancellor and director of the Cranfield School of Management