Martin Allen and Patrick Ainley
Written for The Guardian’s Higher Education Network
Higher Level Apprenticeships aren’t all they’re cracked up to be and progression from the lower level apprenticeships is particularly limited – despite reports to the contrary.
HLAs are relatively new, designed in 2011 as equivalent to an undergraduate degree with a £25 million initial government investment. Alongside a pledge to create 20,000 places, Vince Cable promised they would ‘put practical learning on a level with academic study’. Some of the 45 different occupational frameworks have still not been finalised however – one reason for growth rates being very slow (less than 10,000 starts in 2012/13, just 2% of apprenticeship starts in total). Because they are so few, they are vastly oversubscribed with 5 applicants for every vacancy.
Up until now, the majority of starts have been by those over 25 years old (only 800 Higher Level starts by under 19 year olds and 4,200 by those 19-24 in 2012/13). The low number of Higher Level opportunities has also limited the extent of ‘progression’ via an Advanced Level Apprenticeship. As a result, HLAs do not as yet provide a serious ‘alternative’ to a degree.
Level 4 schemes – equivalent to foundation degree/HND level – are also being delivered by training organisations or by the growing number of private universities. HLAs should require at least part-time classroom-based technical study but their relationship with Higher Education is unclear.
HLAs have been built on the back of increasingly discredited lower level apprenticeships at level 2 (equivalent to GCSE) and – at least until very recently – it has been existing workers, rather than new applicants, who have benefitted most, as employers have ‘converted’ existing staff to ‘apprentices’ to gain training subsidies. This has also enabled government to meet its ‘targets’.
When young people have been directly recruited, they have not usually been guaranteed permanent employment and have found an apprenticeship may only last about a year – sometimes less. More reputable apprenticeships with leading employers have attracted huge numbers of applicants but these are a minority. The majority of schemes, rather than providing real opportunities for learning, have been no more than what we call Another Great Training Robbery. Further Education colleges have been marginalised with work-place training carried out by private training providers, in some cases doing little more than assessing what employees already know, but enjoying lucrative government contracts.
Following recommendations in the Richard Review, the government now wants to ‘put employers in the driving seat’, giving them more power over apprenticeship funding and to decide what sort of qualifications apprentices should gain. Also supported by Labour and essentially a continuation of the English free-market, ‘firm by firm’ approach, this may instead lead to a fall in the number of apprentices because it places too much of a burden on individual employers, particularly small ones.
What Britain lacks is the national regulation that has formed the basis of the German system for the last 50 years, where government, employers and trade unions cooperate in planning apprenticeship numbers as well as training content. This results in two thirds of young Germans completing apprenticeships to at least level 3 (Advanced level) with 90% going into employment. German apprenticeships also generally last at least three years and involve part-time study in special vocational colleges. In comparison, without guarantees of both progression and employment, HLAs are unlikely to become properly embedded.
Also, compared with Germany, a much greater proportion of UK young people enter university. So many employers see no need to be involved in HLAs when there are more than enough graduates to recruit. At the same time, many leading employers now recruit through internships, while those employers that still want to, can sponsor potential recruits through a university degree. Ironically, the most ‘vocational’ of all university courses, like law and medicine, are those least likely to be under threat from an alternative apprenticeship route.