Apprenticeship Breakfast Blog

Vice-Chancellor, Prof. David Phoenix, discusses apprenticeships and why they're a significant opportunity for students and businesses alike:

London South Bank University has long been a proponent of the “learn-while-you-earn” model, with over 40% of our students sponsored by their employers. It was therefore a natural step for us to move into apprenticeships, and LSBU is now one of the largest educational providers for higher and degree level apprenticeships offering education for 10 of the new apprenticeship standards with over 20 other programmes in development.

For the fourth in our series of policy roundtables, it seemed appropriate, almost a year into the apprenticeship levy, to consider the future of apprenticeships. Taking part in the discussion were employers, training providers, think tanks and Southwark Council (which has generously made a grant to LSBU to create our new Passmore Centre supporting apprenticeships, skills and training in the borough).

The UK is suffering from a pronounced skills gap, especially in higher-level technical skills. The apprenticeship levy provides a significant opportunity to help address this; however, opinions differ on key questions such as the proportions of apprenticeships across sectors, regions, educational levels and the demographics of the apprentices themselves.

The new apprenticeship standards and apprenticeship levy were established to improve employer investment in skills with the aim of improving productivity. Now some see the programme also (or even primarily) as a means of promoting social mobility. Proposing, as some do, that employers “should” focus their levy payments on providing Level 2 and 3 programmes for young people is asking a system designed for one thing, to deliver quite another. At LSBU, we believe in the power of education and training to effect social mobility but we are certain that if the focus remains on productivity through skills, then social mobility will be, in the medium term, a most significant outcome. This was also the view of employers around the table, whose message was that whilst they were focusing on skills, apprenticeship candidates were coming forward from a widening array of backgrounds. The point was made too that those in government who pressed the case for the focus of apprenticeships to be on young people should reflect on the withdrawal of ring-fenced funding for 16-18 apprentices and the fact that the largest proportion of the population in need of skills investment was within the adult segment of society.

Employers and others highlighted the importance of upskilling existing staff, which for many is a more urgent requirement and easier starting point. Many employers will look beyond their current workforce only once those easier wins are achieved. OECD and other evidence is that very substantial productivity gains are to be made by upskilling UK management and this was therefore a legitimate and indeed vital focus for employers and government. It is pleasing to therefore see that the CEO of the Institute for Apprentices has recently recognised the benefits of management qualifications within this framework For those pressing for an immediate refocusing of the levy on new starters and young learners, it was felt to be too early in the programme to judge current success and certainly too early to be making changes.

One aspect of apprenticeships often lost in the discussions is the importance of providing apprentices with structured, ongoing and monitored mentoring and support. There is understandably much focus on the need to deliver effective End-point Assessment and associated qualifications. However, of equal importance to the success of an apprenticeship, and a key facet in improving the quality of apprenticeships generally, is the strengthening of professional and learning support in the workplace. In smaller businesses and those without a history of work-based training, this is undoubtedly a challenge especially when considering new and young apprentices, and potentially a disincentive for some companies. It was suggested that providers might offer an ‘enhanced support package’ to help SMEs deliver this. This could be an area of interest when assessing the relative levels of success seen by apprentices and apprenticeship programmes.

Providers and employers were interested in the balance between training and education. The former teaches the specific competencies required to do a job, while the latter provides a broader range of skills and critical thinking which support the growing adaptability needed in the workplace. As change in employer needs grows ever faster, it is inevitable that if we focus too much on training, many employees will experience a rotating door of apprenticeship to apprenticeship as their job roles are phased out and new ones phased in. Concern was expressed that the Institute for Apprenticeships (IFA) focuses unduly on training. It was suggested that this may be because the IFA deems training to be cheaper to deliver and that this in turn is behind the IFA’s efforts to reduce the funding available to deliver apprenticeships. However, if apprenticeships are to prepare our workforce for change and we are to ensure that these apprenticeships are valued, they need to include a substantial educational element through, for example, the use of embedded qualifications. That will help to ensure apprenticeships offer not just preparation for a specific and probably finite job role, but entry to a long term career, with the social mobility that is likely to bring.