Apprenticeships have been thrust centre stage by the new government. In May, it was revealed in the Queen’s speech that – much like the title “university” – the word apprenticeship will become a protected term. The aim is to prevent low-quality schemes being described as apprenticeships when they are really just short-term training rebadged.
Many people still struggle to understand the difference between training and education
The government is right to recognise the importance of the apprenticeship route – in the future it will provide a vital role for the development of individuals and for contributing to economic growth. But limited funding and a focus on getting 3,000,000 apprentices through the door has the potential to undermine ministers’ ambitions.
With a minimum wage of £3.30 an hour from this October (representing a 57p increase) and up to two thirds of the cost met by government, some employers have seen apprenticeships as an opportunity to secure subsidised labour on a revolving door basis. Employees can be trained to do a job but not to build a career, to be expendable and easily replaced. A focus on numbers starting the programme, rather than those with careers at the end has the potential to further fuel poor reputation and association of apprentices with less able candidates.
Part of the problem is that many people still struggle to understand the difference between training and education. If we want to rebuild the apprenticeship brand, we have to recognise that there is a distinction – and that the best apprenticeship programmes do both.
If we train simply for specific jobs that exist in the present, we will always have a workforce failing to meet its future potential in terms of productivity, earnings and social mobility. Apprentices also need to receive a properly accredited and quality assured educational component, such a pathway to a Higher National Certificate (HNC), Higher National Diploma (HND) or foundation degree. Universities, in collaboration with employers, can help create this. They have been helping fulfil this role for centuries; consider the way universities currently work with the NHS to provide doctors and health professionals in an incredibly fast moving field.
There are already some superb examples of best practice that should be the template for what apprenticeships should look like – Rolls Royce has run a scheme for more than 100 years that opens the door to more advanced qualifications like a HNC, HND or foundation degrees. In the UK many students are already sponsored by employers to attend courses. Costs are shared between the student and employer, which also reduces the burden on tax payers.
The move to define apprenticeships is vital and it is clear it requires input from employers and those universities experienced in developing highly applied tailored courses. But we need to take the long view and set the standard high even if that means falling short of arbitrary input targets.
If we can achieve this, then as in other countries, the salaries and careers associated with these qualifications will help change public perception regarding the value of professional and technical education. If we fail, then the whole apprenticeship opportunity will be lost once more.
Join the higher education network for more comment, analysis and job opportunities, direct to your inbox. Follow us on Twitter @gdnhighered.