National Apprenticeship Week 2021: Reflections from the past 12 months

As we celebrate National Apprenticeship Week 2021, it seems timely to reflect on the year just gone and look to the future of apprenticeship policy.

12 months ago this week, most of us had never heard of coronavirus and National Apprenticeship Week was in full swing at the University of Salford. We ran ‘shadow an apprentice’ days for regional MPs to find out more about how employers in their constituencies are working with the University to support apprenticeships. We took our apprentice ambassadors to London to speak to MPs and Lords in parliament about how apprenticeships had changed their lives. And we brought together employers and regional policy makers to understand how we could make 2020 the ‘year for apprenticeships’ apprenticeships in Greater Manchester.

In February 2020, it really did feel like it might be the year for apprenticeships. It was three years since the introduction of the apprenticeship levy and the government had promised a review of the levy. Non-levy paying employers had been moved to the digital account service, addressing some of the issues around access to funding for SMEs. And the government’s further education white paper and its response to the Augar review, which looked at funding for degree apprenticeships, was in the pipeline.

We know what happened next.

Coronavirus changed everything. Not only did it occupy the political bandwidth pushing other agendas, for the time being, aside, more importantly it had a huge impact on our daily lives. With large swathes of the economy shut down, this meant many apprentices up and down the country, including those that study at Salford, were put on furlough. At the height of the crisis, The Sutton Trust found that up to three-fifths of apprentices had lost out on work or learning as a result of COVID, putting them at risk of not being able to continue their training.

At Salford, our immediate priority was supporting our apprentices to continue their learning. With the transition to online provision across the board at the University, this meant that the vast majority of our apprentices were kept on programme despite the challenges they faced. For those that were furloughed or who lost their employment, the team worked tirelessly to place them with other employers. We also lobbied government proactively to ensure that those apprentices who had been made redundant would have an extended grace period to find new employment or to fund apprentices to completion if they were more than 50% of the way through their programme.

In response to the crisis, the government announced a number of schemes to incentivise employers to take on apprentices in the summer economic update and while some argued they didn’t go far enough, they were a positive step. These schemes were extended in the comprehensive spending review in November, alongside other measures to encourage take up of apprenticeships by employers, including a new online matchmaking service and more flexibility in the transfer of unspent levy funds.

Since then, we have also had the long-awaited Skills for Jobs white paper – formerly known as the further education white paper – which expands on the government’s ambition for technical education and builds on the funding announcements in the comprehensive spending review.

The ambition to increase the number of apprenticeships remains a central plank of the government’s vision for education and training, but if apprenticeships are truly to be at the heart of the government’s aspirations to build back better from the coronavirus crisis and level up opportunity across the country, it needs to ensure that the apprenticeship agenda is supported by a sustainable funding system that enables learners of all ages to study at all levels.

This means better supporting SMEs to take on apprentices. The recent financial incentives that have been introduced as a result of COVID are insufficient to are insufficient to overcome the financial and bureaucratic barriers many employers face and are also not a long-term solution. The government could consider offering greater flexibility around the levy and enabling employers to use some of this for salaries. This will particularly impact younger people who are entering into the labour market for the first time.

This means not taking degree level apprenticeships out of scope of the levy if the apprentice has already been educated to degree level. Portfolio careers are already becoming increasingly common and as technological advancement leads to near constant disruption in the economy, our education and training system needs to be responsive to changing economic needs. But it also needs to take into account individuals’ personal circumstances.

And this means devolving the levy underspend to city regions, such as Greater Manchester, where this funding could be used to support targeted interventions in line with local industrial strategies and the newly proposed local skills improvement plans. Great strides have been made in the city region to respond to the needs of employers, including the creation of a UCAS-style system for apprenticeships – the Greater Manchester Apprenticeship and Careers Service (GMCAS) – and the regional levy matchmaking service which blazed a trail when it was launched in 2019, but mayors have frequently argued that devolving unspent levy funds would allow them to do more to support the creation of opportunities in their areas.

This year’s National Apprenticeship Week theme is ‘building the future’. As any good construction apprentice will tell you, if you want to build something you need to start with the foundations. Getting the apprenticeship policy and funding environment right now – at this critical time as we look to the post-COVID economic recovery – will help to lay the foundations of a successful economy, with apprenticeships at the heart of an education and training system that works for all.

You can find out more about how we’re contributing to this ambition at the University of Salford.