Beating the skills gap with UVAC — Interview with Mandy Crawford-Lee

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Apprenticeship policy is about addressing the skills and productivity gap. But is it working? Deborah Talbot talks to Mandy Crawford-Lee, Director of Policy and Operations at the University Vocational Awards Council (UVAC).

The skills gap is leading to a crisis of productivity. Outside of London and the South East, which pulls in young, skilled people and those who migrate with the required skills, productivity levels are below the UK average, according to ONS statistics.

What should the government do? Moreover, is our education and skills system ready to take on the challenge? I talked to Mandy Crawford-Lee from UVAC — an organisation that supports HE to deliver vocational learning — about where the skills gap is, whether apprenticeship policy is fit for purpose, and how the university sector is positioning itself to deliver on degree apprenticeships.

Deborah:

What’s UVAC’s role in addressing the skills gap?

Mandy:

The skills gap, for us, is really a productivity gap. That’s where degree apprenticeships come in, as they relate typically to higher skilled occupations and therefore can have the biggest impact on productivity growth.

Productivity has been stagnating. You can see that very clearly when you compare the UK with other developed nations. Based on 2016 figures, we are about 18% below the G7 average in terms of GDP per hours worked. Skills are one of the major factors that can influence productivity, so the relative weakness in some aspects of the UK’s skills mix will tend to constrain growth. Skills are also complementary to other factors that can improve productivity, such as investment, innovation and enterprise.

For us, the skills debate is about bridging the gap between education and skills. Employers in Britain often state they fail to recruit the right skills and yet spend half the amount per employee than the EU average for continuing vocational education. Degree apprenticeships offer an elegant solution to supplying talent as they develop the occupational skills needed but go beyond just filling gaps to providing the knowledge and behaviours required for adaptive change.

Deborah:

Apprenticeship policy is one way of addressing this, but is it working the way it should?

Mandy:

I think if we look at what the family of apprenticeships in England has given us in terms of an idea, it’s something quite marvellous — the ability to develop and step into the workplace at the level of skill required in crafts and trade, say at level 2 and 3, and being able to progress in the workplace through technical, associate professional, managerial and professional job roles, is something very exciting.

But I think what we’ve had in apprenticeships for a long time is a domination of provision for low-level job roles — for example, in health and adult social care, business administration, customer service — with little opportunity for stepping up in terms of skill development.

On the positive side, the apprenticeship reforms, especially the introduction of degree apprenticeships and the Levy, have been disruptive, challenging our understanding of what an apprenticeship is and what its purpose is for. And it’s changing and radicalising the marketplace of apprenticeship providers.

Deborah:

Where do universities sit within these dilemmas?

Mandy:

Some universities have been very well placed to address the skills gap because they have been delivering vocational educational training at a higher level for a long time. And the reforms to apprenticeships moved the policy clearly into HE vocational territory — we’ve seen standards developed in accountancy, engineering, digital technology, construction, leadership and management. And in the last year, registered nurse, social worker, police constable — all graduate entry level professions.

I also think universities have also historically worked very closely with employers, particularly the post-1992 and the modern parts of the sector, to ensure that their provision meets those occupational standards and expectations in learning and learning outcomes.

Deborah:

Are there any barriers to evolving apprenticeship programmes to meet economic needs?

Mandy:

I think we’re seeing fewer and fewer institutional barriers to universities understanding what their role is in the local or national economy.

However, there are a few issues at the governmental level that we would say are at times pushing a break on engagement. I don’t have time to address them all, but here are a few.

Firstly, there is a sense of a mission drift — is apprenticeship policy about productivity and supporting social mobility or addressing the failure of the school system for 16-18-year-olds?

Secondly, there are problems with implementation. The Institute for Apprenticeships and Technical Education’s (IfATE) mandatory qualification rule means that Trailblazer can only specify a mandatory qualification if it’s a requirement of a professional body, a regulator or used for hard sifting in interviews. This stipulation removes the choice from employers and is one of the biggest threats to degree apprenticeships. And yet, the recent Higher Education Commission Inquiry into degree apprenticeships showed that employers saw the economic and social potential of degree apprenticeships in favourable terms.

The provider earnings limit, proposed by the Education and Skills Funding Agency and described as necessary to prevent the rapid growth of providers who then become too big to fail could, in our view, also be used to ration some types of provision and certain types of provider.

The lack of transparency in the process adopted to determine a funding band recommendation is another area of concern.

And there are considerable pressures around quality assurance. Many groups, from the Association of Employment and Learning Providers, the Association of Colleges, the trade publication FE Week and Ofsted, argue for the need to have one quality assurance regime covering apprenticeships from levels 2 to 7 — that is Ofsted inspection — despite Ofsted having no remit for provision at levels 6 and 7 including degree apprenticeships and universities being already highly regulated by the Office for Students.

Deborah:

Traditionally, skills training was seen as inferior to academic training. How do you address that perception?

Mandy:

I think it is already being addressed because some of those ranked among the foremost universities in the world are now engaged in the delivery of the Government’s flagship skills programme — the University of Cambridge, King’s College, Imperial College and increasingly Russell Group institutions. But you are right — we have suffered for generations from a long-held view of an academic and vocational divide where vocational programmes were the poor relation.

With the degree apprenticeship agenda, concerns about whether the skills system is creating a secondary route or a substandard route to a degree outcome have been largely overcome. A degree apprenticeship is a degree — there is no difference in qualification outcome. And of course the regulator wouldn’t allow that difference to exist — the requirements for excellence in higher education is highly regulated and monitored.

Most positively, degree apprenticeships have helped migrate upwards the perception and understanding of apprenticeships. They can and should support progression. They help that ability to think that, in the workplace, I can be encouraged to be ambitious. And employers in return are being aspirational, thinking about new skills and new employee talent, but also upskilling and reskilling existing workers.

We argue that the ability to progress from level 2 to level 7 and potentially level 8 makes apprenticeships a choice for everyone’s children, not just someone else’s children.

Deborah:

Where do you hope we’ll be with skills training in a decade?

Mandy:

What UVAC would like to see is skills training based on employer demand and economic need. We want to see more emphasis on delivery that is about productivity and growing the economy, rather than putting right the failings of a compulsory school system. However, provision should also support social mobility and see that social mobility is about that route into employment via work.

In higher education, apprenticeships are probably the area of biggest growth for universities. The priority for the government must be to manage a skills system that engages both further and higher education in the design and creation of programmes that deliver a professionally competent and highly skilled workforce.

So, we hope that as UVAC we can affect some of that change through the work that we do on behalf of our membership in our lobbying and our advocacy work.

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