Tom Richmond, Founder and Director of the EDSK think tank

“Today we bundle a number of different activities into the apprenticeship programme, unnecessarily complicating the system, diluting the brand, reducing value for money, and at times detracting apprenticeships… from their core purpose and from where they can make the greatest impact”, said Doug Richard in his government-commissioned review of apprenticeships in 2012.

The same is still true today.

Pretending that various forms of training are all ‘apprenticeships’ is grossly misleading, damaging to the apprenticeship brand and poor value for money.

A new wave of apprenticeships

Since 2013, groups of employers have come forward to design a new wave of apprenticeships. As a result, many employers have produced high-quality, rigorous and challenging apprenticeships.

However, other employers have simply churned out a plethora of ‘fake apprenticeships’ – training courses that have been relabelled as ‘apprenticeships’ when they are nothing of the sort.

Employers quickly realised that any training course - new or existing - which they label as an ‘apprenticeship’ can gain access to the £3 billion annual funding pot generated by the apprenticeship levy (which is essentially a payroll tax on large employers).

The list of training courses that are now called ‘apprenticeships’ is absurd, to put it mildly. For example, low-skill roles such as serving customers in a coffee shop, greeting customers and cooking fries in a fast-food outlet and performing basic office administration have been rebadged as ‘apprenticeships’ when they are just short training courses for low-wage jobs.

Rebadging management training

Rebadging management training and professional development courses for more experienced employees is also increasingly fashionable among employers. The most popular ‘apprenticeship’ in the country is a training course for existing staff to become a ‘Team Leader / Supervisor’ – accounting for 1 in 10 apprentices since 2017.

What’s more, roles such as ‘Senior Insurance Professional’, ‘Marketing Manager’ and ‘HR Consultant’ are self-evidently not entry-level positions but they too have been relabelled as ‘apprenticeships’ to drawn down the levy funds.

Meanwhile, universities are busy cashing in on the apprenticeship levy through rebadging Bachelor’s degrees and even some Master’s degrees as ‘apprenticeships’. For the apprenticeship levy to be used up on university degrees that can already be funded through the student loan system is hugely wasteful.

Moreover, universities are gaming the levy in their role as large employers by relabelling their own PhD-qualified academics as ‘apprentices’, further demonstrating the failings of the current system. The financial impact of this inappropriate rebadging and relabelling of training courses is substantial.

Our new EDSK report Runaway Training shows that, between them, these various categories of ‘fake apprenticeships’ have been allocated over £1.2 billion of levy funding since April 2017 and account for 50 per cent of all the ‘apprenticeships’ started over this period.

Vested interests

Some trade associations who are making money out of fake apprenticeships were swift to condemn our report last week. Such a reaction was, of course, entirely predictable.

After all, these vested interests are far more concerned with boosting their members’ income through delivering fake apprenticeships than they are with protecting apprentices and taxpayers from unscrupulous behaviour by employers and training providers.

Since 2017, government ministers have been reticent to intervene as they continued to hope that employers and providers would find a way to make the apprenticeship levy succeed. The evidence from the last two years shows that this approach has failed.

The sad truth is some employers and universities are abusing the system for their own financial gain.

On that basis, our report calls on the government to urgently intervene by scrapping all the ‘fake apprenticeships’. Only then will we have any chance of building a credible, respected and trusted apprenticeship system in this country.

Tom Richmond, Founder and Director of EDSK, and a former advisor to ministers at the Department for Education

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