Still more Master apprentices

Latest statistical releases this month show total apprenticeship starts in England, from Aug 2022 to Jan 2023 down by 4.1% to 195,600 compared to 203,990 reported for the same period in the previous year. But starts for Higher level apprenticeships continue to grow substantially, accounting for over a third of all starts, up by 7% on last year.

Higher level apprenticeships are equivalent to Level 4 or above, academic qualifications (level 4 is equivalent to the old HND, a foundation degree is considered level 5, a first degree is considered to be level 6, while a masters is level 7). It’s starts at Level 6 and 7 that have increased most, up by 11.1% to 30,710 so far, representing 15.7% of all starts for 2022/23.

All apprentices now?

Yet the expansion of Higher-level apprenticeships, particularly the claim that they are real alternatives to university for school and college leavers is difficult to square with the fact that under 19s account for less than a third of total starts. Data for the previous year (2021/2) also shows that of the 105,000 Higher level starts, just 5000 were by those under 19 compared to 70,000 plus by those over 24.

According to one study in 2019/20, there were nearly 6,500 apprenticeship funded MBAs. This anomaly was partly the result of government policy where large employers were required to set aside money for apprenticeship training (known as ‘the levy’). In exchange, employers were allowed to more or choose the qualifications that apprenticeship training was spent on.

Anxious to spend what they were required to pay, big companies used it for MBAs. But in 2021 on the back of recommendations by the then Education minister Gavin Williamson, MBAs were removed as a legitimate apprenticeship qualification. Since then, however it seems MBAs have continued to be at least part-funded, if they can be classed as ‘essential to employers’ ( this has been confirmed by the DfE) though other MBA content which people doing ‘Senior Leadership’ apprenticeships can progress to, must be funded separately.  As the link below shows, higher education institutions have also found a way to access levy funding and to increase student numbers.  Some estimates put levy spending on MBA level 7 schemes approaching £1 billion.

The point is that apprenticeship funding is being used for existing staff rather than new entrants to the labour force. This has been a common feature of apprenticeships in England since their ‘reinvention’ some 20 years ago. It’s even more the case with the Highers. Meanwhile with few apprenticeships at any level unable to serve as real alternatives to full-time university study, following the academic route will continue to be considered the only way to secure employment by the majority of young people.

Many of those concerned with education policy continue to have rather limited understanding of apprenticeships, often assuming they can be simply rolled out by FE colleges (even though colleges make up a minority of training providers), or in the case of Highers, that universities will be able to make them a major sources of income ( the 30,000 Higher Level starts should be compared against the 500,000 annual enrolments for first degree courses).  

Apprenticeships have to be created by employers in the first place, which means they need to be part of a more general economic strategy, not just an education and skills initiative.  We should be in favour of employers paying a compulsory levy to fund staff training (something that happens in other European countries) but not in the way it’s now organised. It shouldn’t just be restricted to the current apprenticeship scheme though, but widened to encourage different routes into the workplace for young people.

4 thoughts on “Still more Master apprentices

  1. Terrific, Martin! You have really drilled down into this. We should make it more widely accessible to lazy journos etc. (Meanwhile, watch confusion of shortening Higher Levels Apprenticeships to Highers as these still exist in Scotland but, aside from this, is Scots apps pol substantially different?)

      1. In Scotland the HND is Scot level 8 while the HNC is level 7 and Highers are level 6. Uni degrees are 4 years, levels 7-10, with Level 9 being exit with “ordinary” degree ie without honours (which includes nursing degrees exit point) and Level 10 is traditional honours, including an “MA” in some ancient Unis. That’s the equivalent of level 6 in EWNI. Level 11 is postgrad taught masters, same as Level 7 in EWNI (12 = 8 = doctoral).
        I think you are wrong in describing the “old HND” as level 4 in EWNI. It was Level 5 in my day, same as the Foundation Degree that attempted to replace it. So Scots HND are now a level behind those that still exist in EWNI. Scots HNCs are half an HND in credits and a level below, whereas in EWNI they were two thirds and covered full level 4 and part of Level 5, and were a part time 2 year qualification with a third optional year for HND at Level 5. Scots HNCs are now largely taken full time by school leavers and equivalent to first year degree. However HNC/D units can be packaged into professional development and apprentice awards and taken part time, which for eligible students fees are paid by ScotGov as with all full time HN/Bachelor awards.
        Levels 6 to 8 in Scotland are typically much broader in subject range than their equivalents levels 3-5 in England; specialisation is typically levels 9 and 10 (5 and 6 equivalent), though fiscal pressures to recruit English-domiciled students is weakening that.

        While ScotParliament has full control over qualifications framework and it is held much more in harmony with European/North American systems in keeping with centuries of Scottish education, the fiscal pressures are enormous under the Barnett formula that links grant-funded spending in Scotland to that for England.

        We are awaiting Starmer’s plans with a lot of interest, not just to see whether Scottish Labour follow the London line but because of the consequential funding impact on Scotland if Starmer reduces spending.

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