Master Apprentices

During the period Aug 2021 to Jan 2022, there were just over 200 000 apprenticeship starts – up one fifth from a year ago and approaching the pre-pandemic level – in England, (compared to the same period in 2018/19 though, starts are down by 4.8% reflecting a long-term decline).

Yet there continues to be major changes in the make up of schemes. Advanced apprenticeships account for nearly half (43.2% or 88,100 starts), while Higher apprenticeships account for nearly a third (29.7% or 60,600 starts). This can be compared with the same period 2013-14, when apprenticeships were growing quickly, but Intermediate (GCSE level) starts made up two thirds. In comparison Advanced starts represented just over a quarter, while the comparatively new Highers constituted under 2%.  How can these changes be explained?

Firstly, during their initial period of growth, apprenticeships, promoted as alternatives to university, or in response to ‘skills shortages’, were criticised for being low skill, ‘coffee shop’ apprenticeships. Not lasting more than a few months, many employers used them as a form of cheap labour, replacing one young apprentice with another rather than making permanent appointments. As a result, schemes were rewritten so as to be more ‘rigorous’ and bogus private sector training organisations that provided ‘certification’ – in many cases to existing workers, were rooted out. Other requirements were also introduced about the required length of a scheme and required ‘off the job’ training.

A further explanation might be found in changing skill demands of the economy. This is the ‘hour glass’ theory, where, it’s argued, as traditional ‘middle’ skilled (and semi-skilled) manual and clerical jobs have disappeared, new vocational and technical qualifications reflect the needs of a new ‘technical elite’ (see previous posts on this).  Some have also suggested that these new higher quality apprenticeships are being captured by the ‘middle classes’ from more prosperous areas with implications for social mobility.

Yet while an increase in Level 4 enrolments by young people might fit into the hourglass thesis, the Highers span a range of qualification levels from 4 (sub degree) to level 7 (higher degree). A new degree level apprenticeship was established in 2015 (these already existed in Scotland) with a House of Commons library report recording approaching 15,000 starts as soon as 2018/19. 60% of these were by those over 25 – two-thirds having already worked for their employer for over a year.

But according to the TES (11/02/20) more than a £100 million of apprenticeship levy funding has been spent by businesses on putting senior managers through master’s degree apprenticeships, often MBAs. In otherwords, large companies have spent the money on apprenticeships that might otherwise come from a regular training budget because they do not want to lose their levy contributions. Levy rules say any money unspent after two years is taken by the tax authority.

In August and November 2019 alone, there were 2,324 levy-funded starts on the level 7 senior leader apprenticeship standard – an apprenticeship where students gain an integrated master’s degree. Leading technical universities have also been anxious to facilitate these ‘Masterships’ Before his dismissal and no doubt anxious to be representing the ‘less privileged’ Gavin Williamson had promised a review.  

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