The Apprenticeship Levy

By Ben Hughes

The apprenticeship levy represents a once in a lifetime opportunity to re-evaluate higher education and training in the UK.

For those of us involved in higher education, it challenges us to think about what we do and why we do it. The UK is highly fortunate in its diverse post-18 education sector - from the Russell Group to the post-1992 universities; from its vibrant FE colleges to the newly-formed UTCs; from the online Open University to the emerging alternative providers. But whether due to the prescriptions of the QAA’s framework for higher education or the desire to grow numbers, that diversity is seldom reflected in the pitch to prospective students and employers. Everyone claims to be developing “employability skills” – whatever the course; whatever the historic institutional mission; whatever the learning environment.

But do those claims really stack up? Is that really the aim of the liberal education so many of our great universities offer? Or is it at best a by-product of the experience? And is it really the outcome of the learning experience in those newer, more avowedly vocational providers – often staffed by the same academics teaching the same thing in the same way as their more traditional counterparts, albeit with a slightly different emphasis?

The apprenticeship levy offers educational institutions the opportunity to fundamentally re-think and indeed re-badge what we do. Those more academically orientated should champion the benefits of a liberal education and ensure that they deliver them, trusting that the graduates who emerge will use the knowledge and skills acquired to find their professional way, much as Newman always envisaged they would. Those more practically focused should form partnerships with industry to deliver higher level apprenticeships which work for their students and benefit their employers.

And make no mistake, the levy also represents a huge opportunity for employers. For decades, the CBI and others have lamented the lack of employability skills in graduates. Now, through the levy, employers have the chance to shape the post-18 learning experience as an equal partner with educational institutions, ensuring their trainees are learning whilst earning on a scale previously unimagined.

There are two ways this can go. Employers may choose to simply re-badge their existing training in a bid to recoup as much of their levy contribution as possible. Education providers, similarly, may elect to tweak their existing programmes and offer employers courses they have prepared earlier with perhaps a little more flexibility on delivery.

But if that does happen, it will be a wasted opportunity. The levy offers the opportunity to re-image the higher education and training landscape so that it delivers the outcomes so long championed for it for the benefit of students and employers alike. In effect, the Government has brought its thoroughbred educational and industrial horses to the water. But it can’t make us drink – or indeed think. April 6th is a carpe diem moment for us all. If we don’t seize the day, a launch date five days earlier would have been more appropriate.