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Apprenticeships - Motion to Take Note

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 3:11 pm on 4th July 2019.

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Photo of Lord Norton of Louth Lord Norton of Louth Conservative 3:11 pm, 4th July 2019

My Lords, I congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Young of Norwood Green, on securing this debate. It is especially timely, as it enables me to develop points I made in Tuesday’s debate on the Augar report, when I addressed apprenticeships, and enables my noble friend Lord Younger to say what he had intended to say in that debate, having run out of time just as he was about to comment on apprenticeships.

I declare my interest as an academic and as chair of the Higher Education Commission, which draws together people from business, academia and Parliament. Our most recent report, launched in January, was entitled Degree Apprenticeships: Up to Standard? We took evidence from sector leaders, as well as a wide range of higher-education organisations and employers, including IBM, Boots and BAE Systems. The importance of apprenticeships was reflected in the turnout for the launch of the report—there was standing room only—with our recommendations clearly resonating with those attending. The need for action is also clear from the briefings we have received for today’s debate from the Local Government Association and Sutton Trust.

As we found, there is widespread recognition of the value of apprenticeships. I quote Sir Chris Husbands, vice-chancellor of Sheffield Hallam University:

“An education system fit for the twenty-first century … must ensure the acquisition of both academic and technical skills… Students need that. The nation needs that”.

In short, the benefit is not confined to those taking apprenticeships. It benefits the economy and enriches society.

The problem, as the noble Lord has said, is with provision. There are difficulties especially, but by no means exclusively, for SMEs and disadvantaged students. The system of delivering apprenticeships is unduly crowded and lacking in flexibility and efficient co-ordination. We heard criticism of the Education and Skills Funding Agency’s procurement process, with many high-quality education institutions, across all levels of apprenticeship, not receiving funding to meet the needs of SMEs. The current funding regime is not fit for purpose. Under that regime we have a patchwork quilt of provision.

Our evidence showed that the artificial separation of levy and non-levy providers, coupled with a botched non-levy procurement process, has resulted in a lack of providers, particularly for SMEs. Among our principal findings was that, of 51 approved degree apprenticeship standards, almost half had no providers that are delivering to SMEs. There are problems also with the length of degree apprenticeships, the absence of stop-off points and the inflexibility of design, as the noble Lord touched on, which may result in a mismatch between provision and future skills needs.

The losers are not just SMEs, but students in areas of educational and economic disadvantage. We identified what we referred to as “apprenticeship cold spots”. We found that an aspiring apprentice from Norfolk, compared to someone from Hammersmith and Fulham, has to travel, on average, 12 times as far for the nearest apprenticeship opportunities. We concluded that what is particularly needed are stable funding arrangements, streamlined administrative procedures for the approval of degree apprenticeships and longer-term policy stability. There is also a need, as the Sutton Trust has noted, for pupils to receive advice on apprenticeships.

Among our recommendations are: creating equal access for SMEs by permitting HE institutions already delivering degree apprenticeships to big businesses to deliver for small businesses; creating a more agile bureaucracy and rationalising what are presently costly and repetitive processes for employers and providers; and speeding up the process for approving standards. We also favour offering additional financial support for prospective degree apprentices from cold spots and disadvantaged backgrounds. As I said in the debate on Tuesday, I very much welcome the Augar committee’s recommendation for a body of work that examines the challenges that are preventing SMEs taking up opportunities for degree apprenticeships. This very much mirrors our recommendation for such a review.

It is possible to make changes to render the system more flexible, integrated and quicker, and to do so without great cost. Indeed, in economic terms, the nation would be a clear beneficiary. Does my noble friend agree with the analysis I have offered, and could he say what the Government are doing to achieve these goals? I had a meeting not so long ago with the Minister for Apprenticeships, Anne Milton, so I know the Government are alert to the issues. It would be helpful to have a progress report on what is being done. The rewards, to students, to business—not least to small businesses—and to the economy are substantial.

The Motion refers to,

“the case for the effective delivery of workplace opportunities for young people”.

That includes apprenticeships but, in my view, can be taken more broadly. There is value in not seeing the delivery of workplace opportunities as confined to apprenticeships. It is important to recognise that such opportunities benefit students taking courses in HE and FE. In Tuesday’s debate, I referred to the value of experience-based learning. Having the opportunity to do a work experience placement as part of a degree course helps to build confidence as well as develop skills that employers want. Linking study with a placement facilitates understanding, as well as opening up opportunities of which the student may not previously have been aware. It prepares the student for life after graduation. That is all to the good and something we should be encouraging across HE and FE. There is a much greater recognition of its value than before, but we need to press further for recognition of its worth and status. If anything, it should be the norm and not the exception. I would welcome my noble friend’s endorsement of that view and invite him to comment on the work experience opportunities offered within government. How extensive are those opportunities and are there plans to extend them?

Like the noble Lord, Lord Young, I finish by returning to the point about advice. As the Augur review stresses, good information, advice and guidance are crucial for anyone seeking impartial advice about jobs, careers, routes of learning and qualifications. It argues that careers support is still underfunded and that schools should be held to account for their statutory responsibility to provide information, advice and guidance. For prospective students to take up apprenticeships, or degree courses with embedded work experience opportunities, they need to know about them. What plans are there to supplement the careers strategy and enable prospective students—from wherever they are drawn—to make informed choices? Does the Minister agree that failing to invest in providing such guidance is a false economy, the losers being not only the students but the nation, which needs the workforce necessary for a virile economy and a vibrant society?