The public/private dilemma in apprenticeship training

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The UK government has consistently pushed the benefits of opening up education to the private sector. But is the private sector any better than FE and HE institutions when it comes to delivering apprenticeship training? Deborah Talbot weighs the benefits of each.

The UK government has made no secret of its plans to ‘level the playing field’ between public and private providers in the tertiary (post-16) sector.

The Higher Education and Research Act 2017 aimed to open higher education to the ‘for profit’ sector, making it easier for private institutions to hold degree awarding powers and hold the title of ‘university’.

And the FE sector, according to a 2018 report by the Institute for Fiscal Studies, has been subject to significant restructuring due to funding cuts, being “one of the few areas of education spending to see cuts since 2010.”

With 36% of adult education funding going to 19+ apprenticeships, private or Independent Training Providers (ITPs) have moved to take advantage of recent apprenticeship policy. ITPs in apprenticeship training are huge compared to the public sector. The top ITP, Lifetime Training Group Ltd. registered over 20k starts in 2017-18, compared to 410 for Manchester Metropolitan University (the top public HE provider) and Dudley College (the top FE provider) at 2290.

Is the move to level the playing field good for education and training?

Getting a bad press

The push to privatise has not been without its challenges. Baroness Wolf, a former adviser to the government on vocational education, wrote that:

“Sweeping general legislation might make it easier to set up a really small, innovative, educationally wonderful institution, but it’s much more likely to mean we end up with the American-style catastrophe.”

The past two years have seen some spectacular failures in the private provider sector. One of the largest apprenticeships training providers, 3aaa, was liquidated after compliance failings. Another, LearnDirect, collapsed after an ‘inadequate’ rating led to its government contracts being cancelled. BPP University, the largest university-sector apprenticeship training provider, is currently subject to a ban on new starts at level four and five. Other private sector providers have been banned from taking on new starts due to insufficient progress.

And as our news article shows, the Register of Apprenticeship Training Providers (RoATP) and now the Register of End-Point Assessment Providers (RoEPAO) have come under scrutiny for permitting, at best, those with no trading history onto the register, and at worst, companies committing fraud.

These high-profile failures will not fill potential learners or employers with confidence. But many commentators note that it is not so much the principle of allowing the private sector in as an inadequate system of regulation, particularly at the approval and procurement stages. And FE Week reported that regulation is still not working effectively at apprenticeship levels 6 and 7 where there is no degree element. A report by Gatsby concluded that:

“The quality assurance systems currently in place are not sufficient, particularly to respond to the new requirements of apprenticeship standards and growing numbers of higher-level apprenticeships.”

Parts of the UK government undoubtedly have a ‘cutting red tape’ agenda, but business doesn’t necessarily follow this agenda. So much of the news focuses on bad news, while good practice from ITPs go unprocessed. Is it possible to get a better perspective on balancing the private and public sector in training provision?

Looking over the fence

The Department for Education’s FE Choices Employer Satisfaction Survey 2017 – 2018 shows consistently good results from all sectors. When asked if they would recommend their training provider to another employer, 85.2% said they would recommend their general FE College and 87.2% their private sector TP. The figures for overall satisfaction were 89% and 92.2% respectively.

ITPs have some advantages over public sector education. To succeed, they must have very well-defined marketing strategies so that their offering can attract new clients. They often pivot rapidly, seeing new opportunities and quickly responding to them.

ITPs are also good at focusing on what they can deliver well at a profit, which means straightforward programmes, high volume courses and uncomplicated learners.

The private sector is often fast to take up new technologies and approaches — such as functioning systems of online and blended learning — to better deliver to their clients.

As Mark Dawe, of the AELP, says: “Independent training providers are particularly renowned for their ability to engage with employers, showing a propensity for flexibility and responsive customer service that business likes.”

Colleges and universities, on the other hand, have a wealth of experience and long-established checks and balances over their functioning and recruitment. They are also ‘not-for-profit’ meaning that surpluses generated are ploughed back into the institution and its projects. Because they operate as charitable institutions (for the most part), their functioning must be transparent.

They are good at delivering complex programmes of education and training and cater to a wide need, whether locally or nationally. They are used to teaching general skills as opposed to defined skills (though arguably FE colleges do both), which, the IFS argue, might better insulate students and graduates against changes in the labour market.

And what might be perceived by some as a slowness to adapt to change is a careful iterative process which considers the risks and benefits of change to their primary mission.

It’s possible that the public and private training sectors cater to totally different markets, and as such, there is little they can learn from each other.

But the direction of policy means that each sector is liable to experience a blending with the other, with ITPs moving into more complex educational programmes and FE/HE increasingly adopting some business structures, whether these are ‘arms-length’ companies delivering, for example, apprenticeship training, or a move to limited company status.

With these changes in mind, public educational institutions and ITPs might begin to look over the fence at each other’s best practice, says Dawe, “forming effective partnerships to deliver skills for local economies, having good governance or offering best practice in mental health support for learners.”

And that might just transform education and training to the benefit of learners.

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