Why the UK apprenticeship system is ‘broken’
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Why the UK apprenticeship system is ‘broken’

Why the UK apprenticeship system is ‘broken’

Apprenticeships offer an alternative for the traditional university degree. These programmes let students receive on-the-job training and hands-on knowledge for a particular job without needing to attend university

Apprentices can also be a pathway to gain a full Bachelor’s degree or Master’s, without paying for student fees. These degree apprenticeships combine working with studying part-time at a university, either on a day-to-day basis or in blocks of time, depending on the programme and requirements of the employer.

With this accelerated track to a career with a qualification to boot, without ever needing to attend a lecture or complete an assignment, it’s no wonder that apprenticeships have risen in popularity in recent years – particularly in the UK.

The UK government supports apprenticeships in a number of ways including imposing an apprentice levy in April 2017 on UK employers with annual paybills in excess of £3 million (US$3.94 million), which helps to deliver new apprenticeships and quality training.

However, a new report by education think tank EDSK, has shed light on how the apprenticeship system in the UK has failed to meet its objectives of developing vocational skills and increasing the quantity and quality of apprenticeships.

The report titled “Runaway Training: Why the Apprenticeship Levy is Broken and How to Fix it“, is authored by Tom Richmond, the founder and director of EDSK who has previously served as an advisor to former ministers at the Department for Education.

In the report, Richmond wrote that employers are using the apprenticeship levy for three types of “fake apprenticeships”: Low-skill and generic roles; Management training and professional development courses; and Bachelor’s degrees and Master’s-level programmes.

All three do not meet any established definition of an apprenticeship either in the UK or abroad.

For example, the most popular apprenticeship in the UK – accounting for one in ten apprentices – is to become a “team leader/supervisor”. This is followed by roles such as “chartered manager” and “department manager” which are not entry-level positions – consuming levy funds which should go towards supporting new employees.

Another example is the relabelling of university degrees as apprenticeships, which the report described as a “hugely wasteful” practice given that they are already funded through the student loan system.

The higher-level apprenticeship  “Accountancy/Taxation Professional’ course at Level 7 (equivalent to a Master’s degree) has been the costliest higher-level apprenticeship, using up £174 million since 2017 by claiming to cover roles as diverse as Financial Accountants, Management Accountants, Tax Accountants, Tax Advisers, Tax Specialists, External Auditors, Internal Auditors, Financial Analysts, Management Consultants, Forensic Accountants and Business Advisors.

Universities, including highly-ranked ones such as the University of Oxford, the University of Durham and Imperial College London, have also relabelled their university academics as “apprentices” to use up the university’s own levy contributions.

Since April 2017, these three categories of fake apprenticeships have been allocated over £1.2 billion of levy funding and account for half of all the “apprenticeships”.

The report blames the government for leaving it to employers to define what could be labelled as an apprenticeship.

“Some employers have exploited this weakness in the reforms by inappropriately labelling training courses as ‘apprenticeships’ (in order to access the levy funding) when they are nothing of the sort.”

“Even learning how to play football, cricket or rugby has now been labelled as a ‘Sporting Excellence’ apprenticeship to get access to the funding generated by the levy.”

These inappropriate relabelling of existing training courses by some employers and universities have reduced the apprenticeship brand to a “meaningless concept” today, the report concluded.

The report author told Personnel Today: “The best systems in the world have a very clear role for apprenticeships; they are used for young people to get started in careers in skilled jobs. They used to be like this in this country too. But the levy has resulted in endless rebadging and rebranding because it’s the only way businesses can gain funding.”

To fix this problem and get apprenticeship funding back on the right track, Richmond has eight recommendations for the government, including the introduction of a “world-class definition of an ‘apprenticeship,” excluding degree and Master-level courses from the levey as well as revising the funding and regulatory framework.

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