It is important to halt the decline of apprenticeships

22 Mar 19

Our economy will be enhanced by the success of apprenticeships, says the Lib Dem spokesperson for business, enterprise and industrial strategy Chris Fox. 



It has been recently reported that the numbers of people starting apprenticeships has fallen by 26% over the last four years.

To see the Tories undoing the hard work the Liberal Democrats did during coalition to promote apprenticeships, including creating nearly two and a half million of them between 2010 and 2015, is incredibly frustrating.

The National Audit Office have said there is “much more to do” if the government are to meet their ambition of creating 3 million apprenticeships by 2020, and they aren’t wrong.

The apprenticeship levy has run into difficulties under the Conservative government. It is becoming increasingly unpopular with business, who feel it is overly bureaucratic and needlessly restrictive. This is partly behind the plummeting figures of apprenticeship starts, but it has also affected non-levy paying SMEs particularly badly.

'Apprenticeships and vocational qualifications are often seen as inferior to academic qualifications; no more than a backup option for those perceived as less academic in school. This is entirely wrong.'

However, the issue does not stop at quantity. The quality of the apprenticeships offered has also faltered under the Tories’ watch. It was Ofsted’s deputy director for further education and skills who told the House of Commons last year that “about half” of the apprenticeships Ofsted had inspected either required improvement or were inadequate.

It is clear to us all that our economy is simply not working for enough people in Britain and is not fit to face the coming challenges of tomorrow. And the current apprenticeship levy, the tax on employers which can be used to fund apprenticeship training, is not only part of the issue, but also necessary to reform is we are to find solutions.

The Liberal Democrats have long sought to be the “party of education”. From the introduction of free school meals during coalition to Vince Cable’s recent development of a lifelong learning commission, we have always been clear that education is essential in ensuring our communities can be the best they can be.

Apprenticeships and vocational qualifications are often seen as inferior to academic qualifications; no more than a backup option for those perceived as less academic in school.

This is entirely wrong. Our economy’s success is enhanced by the scale and success of these activities. We need people with the skills an apprenticeship can provide. Our economy depends on them.

To halt the decline of apprenticeships the Liberal Democrats would expand the apprenticeship levy into a wider ‘skills and training levy’ to help prepare the UK’s workforce for the economic challenges ahead. It is crucial that as we witness the march of technological progress, we grow the country’s skills base.

In time, the Liberal Democrats would also aim to raise the rate paid by the largest businesses to further boost investment in skills and training across the economy.

A fundamental priority when enacting these reforms must be that these are opportunities for all. We would ensure that a quarter of the funds raised by the levy would go into a “social mobility fund” targeted at areas with the greatest skill needs. We would also introduce specific targets for women, the disabled and those from a Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic backgrounds to drive upskilling across disadvantaged groups.

And as unsurprising as it is, the success of our apprenticeship system also depends on Government funding. Further Education colleges have had their funding slashed in recent years despite the fact colleges train and provide education to 2.2million people right across the UK. The consequences if the Conservatives continue to neglect them will be irreparable.

So, it is time the government acted.

To fail to reform the apprenticeship levy is to not only damage our economy, but to let down millions of young people looking for a decent start in life. If we are to succeed in creating a fairer, less divided society we must make sure that everyone has the means to get by and the chance to get on.

Ensuring we offer both the quantity and quality of apprenticeships our young people deserve must be at the core of this ambition.

  • Chris Fox
    Lord Fox is the Liberal Democrat Spokesperson for Business, Enterprise and Industrial Strategy

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