Three million! It is a commendable target. It is also an ambitious target. But is it a realistic target? In January this year the Institute of Fiscal Studies (IFS) called it 'wildly optimistic'. The same IFS report added that the target risks being 'poor value for money'. Mainly because, the IFS says, the plan for some organisations is to simply rebrand low level employment training schemes as apprenticeships.
This isn't a new criticism. In 2016, the Charted Institute of People Development (CIPD) came to a similar conclusion. It called the new Apprenticeship Levy a 'stealth tax' and (via its own research) found almost a third of employers planned to offset costs of the Levy by rebadging existing training programmes. If these predictions come true, this is surely counterproductive and will have no benefits for either the employee/apprentices or employers themselves.
Therefore, I argue, there needs to be a much greater emphasis on higher level and degree apprenticeships. Predictable, you might say, I am the Vice Chancellor of a university after all. But hear me out.
It is an opinion backed by Universities UK . In its new report, Degree apprenticeships: realising opportunities, UUK recommends the new Institute for Apprenticeships should 'ensure the apprenticeship system enables universities to deliver the degree apprenticeships employers demand' . But is this really happening? Through our own research, the Hertfordshire Business Higher/Degree Apprenticeship Survey (DAS), my institution found only 15% of respondents had heard of higher or degree apprenticeships. This is a startling fact and shows that more needs to done to educate businesses on the type of apprenticeships that are available. That is where we, as Vice Chancellors and universities, need to take a lead and actively embrace and promote degree apprenticeships.
According to HEFCE, there are currently around 1000 degree apprenticeships in the country. This is a good start, but there needs to be more. It is clear businesses need better qualified employees, as the DAS found out. The DAS surveyed 250 business and found 78% of them have at least one member of staff that has a skills gap relating to their current role and responsibilities. While over 45% reported a significant difficulty in recruiting new staff with all the necessary skills for the post.
This clearly shows that businesses and universities should be working even more closely together to train staff for relevant roles, rather than employers getting stuck on a recruitment treadmill or lost in the skills gap.
So, the benefits for the employers are clear (as they are for the apprentices themselves). But for universities too, the advantages are numerous. As the new UUK report and the 2016 Future growth of degree apprenticeships report demonstrate:
In relation to the University of Hertfordshire's own programmes we have worked closely with employers to make sure our apprenticeships provide exactly what they need. We wanted to know, first hand, what business in our county and beyond wanted.
So, while there may be some trepidation towards degree apprenticeships from universities, it is important to remember they are a key part of the current government's agenda and are not going away. Yes, degree apprenticeships are a challenge. But they are also an opportunity for another route into higher education which will effectively embrace workplace skills shortages.