Tom McEwan: A degree of bureaucracy hinders support for skills and Northern Powerhouse agenda

UPON the roll-out of degree apprenticeships, David Cameron praised them as offering a ‘great head start’ for young people and crucial for driving forward productivity, a commitment that has been repeated by the current government. Understanding who is benefitting – and in what areas of the country – is crucial to assessing whether these laudable ambitions are being realised.

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The report I have authored with Policy Connect and the Higher Education Commission, Degree Apprenticeships: Up to Standard?, concludes that despite the Government’s aims, there is significant under-delivery to small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) and that “cold spots” – where people are already experiencing severe educational and economic disadvantage – are geographically restricted in accessing this new model. Urgent reform is required if degree apprenticeships are to benefit regional economies to their full potential.

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Sheffield Hallam University and University of Sheffield, together with the three major universities in Leeds, as well as Yorkshire Water, are just some examples of stakeholders from this county who submitted evidence to our inquiry. We learned that Yorkshire can boast a number of institutions and employers who are committed to expanding their offer, addressing local skills needs and improving social mobility through degree apprenticeships.

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However, a number of concerns were raised which included high costs, senseless bureaucracy and artificial restrictions on the participation of SMEs.

On the latter, our report uncovered that the way the funding system works (via a much criticised procurement process) means that the majority of degree apprenticeships in England only have one provider that is delivering for small businesses, damningly disproportionate to the number available for big business. Given that more than 99 per cent of businesses across the country are SMEs, their ability to access degree apprenticeships is crucial if regional economies are to benefit.

The control of funding is led by the ESFA, a central Government agency, and its processes are not aligned with skills needs across the country – failing to supply what employers require, where and when they need it.

Given the Government’s commitments to devolution in the Northern Powerhouse and local industrial strategies, as well as devolved powers to regional mayors, this centralised tender seems at odds with those ambitions. This is particularly concerning given that the strategies stress the importance of a relationship between local government and local business to link the supply of skills with local, regional and national economic priorities.

The potential for degree apprenticeships to deliver on local need is held self-evident at Sheffield Hallam University, where they are committed to working with their Local Enterprise Partnership (LEP), and other stakeholders, to ensure that their offer is delivering for identifiable needs across the region.

But this is not always the case across the country; businesses and providers have been stymied by complex bureaucratic oversight, a less than fit-for-purpose design, frequent delays and costly iterations of government tenders.

Such is the disconnect between local need and the control of supply, Sheffield Hallam is home to the first degree apprenticeships centre of excellence, but not too far away, Leeds Beckett University is the only institution that has been approved for delivery to SMEs in the entire Leeds City Region.

It’s a similar situation ‘down south’ in areas such as Brighton, Surrey and Exeter. HE providers in such areas have excellent relationships with local business and have prospective degree apprentices lined up, but have often had to turn them away due to a system which is not responding to local demand.

While it’s true that providers can subcontract, this is a costly, limited process with which many are reluctant to engage. It is also true that HE institutions offering flexible and distance learning options, can – to some extent – help mitigate a dearth of local providers.

But this fails to tackle the fundamental problem: the Government has striven to create an employer-led system, yet employers are unable to choose their preferred provider and are having to contend with a system that is riddled with market failure.

The DfE must work with others to ensure that degree apprenticeship policy is aligned with local needs.

A devolution strategy which connects the local economy with local skills, as set out in the Northern Powerhouse agenda, has long been desired. The Government must now urgently consult on stripping away artificial barriers which are preventing providers, employers and apprentices from enjoying the vast potential of degree apprenticeships. Such a move could be central to unleashing the potential of both degree apprenticeships and our regional economies.

Tom McEwan is a senior researcher 
at Policy Connect.