The UK’s training system is becoming farcical with a rapid growth in fake apprenticeships and a levy system spiralling out of financial control, a weak definition of what an apprenticeship actually is and an inability to help young people in deprived areas.
These were among the conclusions of Runaway Training, a highly critical report on the UK’s apprenticeship system by educational thinktank EDSK. Its author, Tom Richmond, a former adviser to cabinet ministers Michael Gove and Nicky Morgan between 2013 and 2015, refers to how in comparable systems on the Continent – such as in Germany, Switzerland and Austria – training is designed to ensure people become fully competent in their occupation, rather than providing training to those already in work.
He 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.”
Richmond added that the UK had a flawed “first-come, first-served system… as an employer you are incentivised to claim back as much as the money as possible – if you don’t someone else will.” He said that the level of overspend would be in the region of £1.5bn by 2021 because ministers were not expecting training programmes – “which don’t meet international definition of apprenticeships” – to be absorbed into apprenticeship systems.
The vast level of overspend (the “swift disappearance of the funds raised by the levy”, as the report puts it), Richmond alleged, has been caused by the rapid emergence of fake apprenticeships: “Regrettably, it has reached the point where the apprenticeship brand itself has arguably become a meaningless concept, such is the prevalence of the inappropriate rebadging and relabelling of existing training courses by some employers and universities.”
Richmond alleged that employers had used up over £550 million of levy funding on rebadged management training and professional development courses for more experienced employees. According to the report, the most popular apprenticeship in the country was now becoming a team leader/supervisor. It stated that roles such as marketing manager and HR consultant were “nothing to do with genuine apprenticeships but they continue to consume levy funds that could have been used to support new and younger recruits instead.”
Alongside this, the report found, the proportion of training at Level 2 (equivalent to five GCSEs) had fallen since the levy was introduced (in the 2017-18 tax year) by 15 percentage points whereas training at Levels 4-7 had grown by nine percentage points. Higher level apprenticeships were more expensive to deliver so this trend was leading to high levels of overspending, threatening the future viability of the levy.
Richmond also criticised the spending of £235m on what he termed “low-skill and generic jobs that are now counted as an apprenticeship, including working on a shop checkout, serving drinks in a bar and being part of an airline cabin crew”. These roles, he said, with minimal training and low wages, should not meet any definition of apprenticeship. He noted that “Even learning how to play football has now been labelled as a ‘Sporting Excellence’ apprenticeship to get access to the funding generated by the levy.”
Richmond had eight recommendations for the government, including:
- Introducing a world-class definition of an “apprenticeship” benchmarked against the best systems in the world
- Department for Education should restrict the use of the term “apprenticeship” to training at Level 3 (equivalent to A-levels) only
- Degree and masters level courses should be excluded from the levy
- The existing co-payment rate of 5% should be replaced by a tiered co-payment rate from levels 3 to 6 starting at 0% and rising to 75% for Level 6 programmes
- The 10% top-up invested by government in the HMRC digital accounts of levy-paying employers should be withdrawn.
He contends that if all eight recommendations had been implemented since April 2017, £1bn would have been saved, a third of the funds generated by the levy.
The report was not given a universal welcome. Association of Employment and Learning Providers (AELP) chief executive Mark Dawe said apprenticeships should be available to employers of all sizes to access to the full range of apprenticeship programmes from Level 2 through to Level 7, adding: “We have to repeat ourselves because whatever guise Tom Richmond has taken since leaving government, he sounds like a scratched record on the subject.”
Dawe dismissed Richmond’s claim that the new Level 2 standards in England fall short of the definition of a “proper apprenticeship” and said “the caricatures used bear no resemblance to the reality of what is actually being learnt by the apprentice.”
AELP represents training providers who train about two out of every three apprentices in England.
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” – Tom Richmond
Richmond said the current approach would not meet the needs of those in poorer regions: “If the government wants apprenticeships to be taken seriously by young people, parents and teachers, they must protect this historic brand by scrapping all the ‘fake apprenticeships’ and benchmarking our training programmes against the best in the world. Not only will this save hundreds of millions each year, it will provide more opportunities for young people to train as genuine apprentices, especially those living in the most deprived areas.
“Despite being set up with the best intentions, the apprenticeship levy is now descending into farce.”
A Department for Education spokesperson said: “The Institute for Apprenticeships and Technical Education approves all apprenticeship standards to ensure they meet high-quality requirements. Our reforms mean apprenticeships are better quality, lasting for a minimum of 12 months with at least 20% off-the-job training. In 2017 we introduced legislation so training cannot be called an apprenticeship unless it meets those basic criteria and the minimum quality requirements set by us.”
The Conservative Party manifesto stated that the government would improve the apprenticeship levy but did not reveal any details.