Blink and you could have missed it, but amid the fanfare of the post-general election Queen’s speech, the government renewed its commitment to “ensuring people have the skills they need for the high-skilled, high-wage jobs of the future”. Behind this, I understand, the new apprenticeships minister, Anne Milton, remains focused on ensuring that it delivers on its existing promises to diversify the skills economy by creating three million apprentices by 2020. This is a noble commitment and part of what the economy needs to create those jobs of the future.
What is reassuring, despite the many political changes we have experienced in the past year, is that apprenticeships remain central to Britain’s skills strategy. Last week’s Queen’s speech articulated an intention to create apprenticeships that provide employers with access to the skills they need (Pdf).
We have spoken a lot in recent years about how to increase the number of apprenticeships offered but we need to turn our focus to improving their quality. Recognising these twin imperatives is vital to keep the economy sustainable and competitive.
More work needs to be done to design and deliver apprenticeships in partnership with industry. The latest Pearson/CBI graduate skills survey (Pdf) found that almost half of employers were not satisfied with their graduate hires’ levels of business and customer awareness. If the economy is to remain competitive and UK education a global gold standard, this has to change. And a big part of this should be making apprenticeships the best they possibly can be.
Designing courses, both apprenticeship and non-apprenticeship, in partnership with industry will pay dividends. Engaging large corporates and startups in the design and delivery of degrees benefits students, who receive the training needed to succeed in the world of work. Full-time undergraduates at Pearson Business School, for example, also undertake guaranteed internships and employers are assured that they will be hiring job-ready graduates. Our graduates go on to work for leading organisations such as Microsoft, Dyson, Nestle and Snapchat due to the industry experience they gained while studying for a degree designed in partnership with industry.
Furthermore, collaboration breaks down the barriers between education and industry, and helps employers buy into the apprenticeship system. It is vital that employers see the benefit of apprenticeships to their business and industry. This can’t just be about recouping the apprenticeship levy. If that’s the only motivation then the whole scheme is doomed to failure. It’s about helping employers ensure their own schemes are the best quality possible – with the biggest payback for the business and for the apprentice. This demands investment of time and planning to get the right design and systems in place.
Additionally, pivoting towards an apprenticeship-based recruitment strategy is not an overnight enterprise, involving as it does a thoroughgoing assessment of business needs in the context of graduate and non-graduate recruitment patterns. And you need to make sure you have a great recruitment plan. However, if it means you can get fantastic people it could be well worth making apprenticeships a growing part of future staffing strategies.
Following the advice of people such as the CIPD’s Lizzie Crowley, companies without experience of taking on apprentices are beginning with pilot schemes to feel their way in this complex area, rather than risk crashing and burning in a rushed bid to spend their levy.
Universities should see this an opportunity to develop pilot schemes in conjunction with industry. Pilots provide the opportunity to demonstrate the value of both apprenticeships and degree education to employers. This can in turn be measured by the productivity and retention rates of apprentices and provide insight into how best to use the levy for employers. It can also enable the university to build relationships with employers, which can benefit both parties more broadly.
So far policy makers and businesses have mostly made all the right noises on apprenticeships. We now need to look at how these courses are delivered if we are to match the high numerical targets with quality courses that students and employers have faith in. We need to be asking ourselves, “What makes a good course?”.
Degree apprenticeships in particular are not just short-term training. By definition, they embed a degree and that includes all the associated academic skills and knowledge alongside professional development. Both are valued by employers – that’s why graduates tend to have better employment rates than non-graduates. But the context for a degree apprenticeship course is the professional world. So a good course will be flexible to suit employers, have innovative assessments with obvious relevance to the workplace, will respect workplace learning and not treat it as second best, and forge a strong sense of community.
Degree apprenticeships are demanding and competitive, so a good course will provide both academic and professional mentorship support. To achieve this, collaboration between government, businesses and education organisations will be vital.