Secret Lecturer: Apprenticeships – not a universal panacea

Secret Teacher

Secret Lecturer: Apprenticeships – not a universal panacea

This week’s National Apprenticeship Week puts college training programmes under the spotlight. Most are well organised, innovative and forward-thinking. Colleges like mine are only too happy to put on as many courses for employers as they need to equip school-leavers, adult learners and existing company staff with a plethora of new skills and opportunities for advancement. The problem is the government’s misplaced focus.

Apprenticeship starts are radically down on expected numbers since the apprenticeship levy kicked in last April. The government target of 3m by 2020 looks very optimistic indeed - and no surprise to many in the commercial sector who see the levy as an extra tax, not a funding source for training apprentices they don’t have the capacity to employ.


Brexit breeds uncertainty

Brexit is taking its toll: businesses are uncertain about training needs going forward. If the government resorts to the possible default position of World Trade Organisation tariffs, anything coming in or going out of the EU will cost more for UK business  Meanwhile, inflation is hitting us all because food prices are rising significantly for the first time in living memory. Under more pressure, the Treasury will cut public finances further and make the teaching profession, already suffering shortages, seem less and less attractive. 

The big problem is years and years of underfunding. Many colleges can now only afford to offer specialist courses in niche areas such as cyber security - absolutely massive for the next 10 years - or agri-tech, a farming revolution just around the corner. However, to get there we need experts with the sort of computing science expertise the average UK citizen just doesn’t have.


A £2bn sea change in funding - that’s all it takes

Surely the solution has to be the government financing colleges on a much bigger scale to address the whole digital economy. Instead, it’s slashing adult education to almost nothing and yet staring at an estimated 12m adults (government figures) who though mostly in work are lacking very basic digital skills. 

We can't rely on change from commercial training providers who exist to make money. Our 230 colleges are our best national assets for delivering that agenda, unfettered by the profit motive and working for the social good, based in the communities where all these people live and work.

But we need a sea change in funding. Colleges, including mine, cannot make any more efficiencies; they are lean to the point of almost being broken. The government ‘found’ £10bn to keep Northern Ireland’s Democratic Unionists onside for a Commons majority, so why not produce a mere £2bn (that’s all it would take) to pump-prime a national programme of free digital skills courses aimed mainly at adult learners and run by colleges? (Younger students at least know how to use technology, even if they lack digital literacy. )


Few signs of government pump-priming

Sadly, the government shows little sign of pump-priming - it merely talks the talk about going digital with its published national digital strategy. It says we are some of the heaviest internet users in the world but it’s because we’re buying stuff online, not selling it!

I’m very optimistic about our colleges, but we can only harness their expertise if the government steps up. Remember, we still have two million young people not in education, employment or training (Neets). They need to get back into work to start helping to pay the pensions of people who hope to retire in the next few years. Yet the abolition of the education maintenance allowance (EMA) saw many of them leave college; it was their lifeline to education. 



Students are getting poorer

People are getting poorer. Remove the top 10% of earners and the official average income of around £26,000 reduces to around £13,000. I see increasing numbers of students arriving hungry because they don't get breakfast at home and can’t afford to buy decent food. Numbers applying for bursaries and hardship funds are rocketing. I know colleagues who have second jobs as private tutors just to pay the bills.

And let’s not forget - apprenticeships are not a universal panacea. They have become disproportionately important because the government has made it so. There are only so many apprenticeship-type jobs in construction, plumbing, engineering etc . . . sure, colleges would love to train up the scores of young people angling to be an agri-tech or intrusion analysis (cyber security) apprentice. The problem is finding a company willing to hire them first, which is where it all goes wrong. 


Let’s all be ‘technically inefficient’ 

The only way is to fund colleges to run ‘technically inefficiently’ for a couple of years. So if my college, for instance, offered a two-year cyber intrusion course, it might be for just 6-10 students and it might struggle to find a placement, but at the same time the government could be telling us that in two or three years’ time they think there would be job opportunities for such students. It’s simply thinking ahead constructively. 

The UK will not, for instance, produce loads of agri-tech specialists suddenly, yet agri-tech is exactly what UK agriculture needs as we head into Brexit: to increase crop yields and ensure we don't have a food supply problem, we have to increase the yield our farmers are producing. 

The reality is many farmers are die-hard traditionalists and so change won't happen naturally. One surefire of applying technology to farms – use of drones, automation, robotics, etc – would be the government paying colleges £20,000 for every single student put through an agri-tech course. So many farms and other SMEs are too busy running their own businesses to think about needing young people with digital skills to transfer their operations.


A vital role for college-uni collaboration

Meanwhile, what can the FE sector do? My college is having to put on courses focused on specific industry sectors and leading to the highest paid outcomes. Cuts have drastically reduced many of our other activities. 

But there is a vital job to do - to transform our stagnant industry and to focus government attention on supporting the commercial sector to ‘think digital, think big’, upscale, and become more successful. 

Now is the time for colleges to align forces with universities, using their unique place in communities and their vast pool of vocational training expertise to pioneer a new digital age. 

Now is the time for vice-chancellors should seriously consider joining formally with colleges to create an eco-system of skill training. Only with pooled resources backed by intelligent government funding will apprenticeships, digital skills and bespoke vocational training/future proofing allow Britain to make its way – Brexit or no Brexit.

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