National Apprenticeship Week blog series: UCEM Principal, Ashley Wheaton, addresses Sam Gyimah (Minister for Higher Education)

Posted on: 2018-03-08

Dear Sam Gyimah

At the launch of the Office for Students which I attended last week, I was pleased to hear you make fair access to university one of the top priorities for the new higher education regulator. I agree with you that access should be defined, not just in terms of getting to university, but doing well at university and going on to get a well-paid job. Providing truly accessible, relevant, cost-effective education is at the heart of UCEM’s core purpose. It follows, that our work in delivering apprenticeships for the Built Environment is an important means of achieving this purpose as it enables our students not just to acquire a fully funded degree or diploma qualification, but also to achieve membership of one of the leading professional bodies for the Built Environment and secure well-paid employment with major construction and real estate companies.

The case studies of current UCEM students consistently describe achievements which are nothing short of remarkable and genuinely inspirational. Many of them have had to overcome huge challenges to progress their studies and careers. But it’s frustrating at times therefore, to see that there are currently just too many barriers to access for those from disadvantaged backgrounds wishing to pursue the great opportunities which apprenticeships can offer.

UCEM has been fully committed to the apprenticeships agenda since the surveying standards were launched in 2015 and, of course, the purpose of apprenticeships aligns extremely closely with our mission. But we have been dismayed to find that the apprenticeships system is managed according to a low-trust, compliance-driven model that stifles innovation and discourages providers from working with those who could benefit the most from the programmes available. There are numerous examples of the negative impact of this regime.

Arrangements for working with non-levy paying employers are a case in point. Businesses employing fewer than 50 people represent 48% of UK employment and play a key role in many sectors of the economy, especially in construction and the Built Environment. They have an important part to play in creating apprenticeships and offering opportunities for young people from diverse backgrounds. However, the process for securing funding to deliver apprenticeships for this type of employer has been so onerous that many providers have given up trying and are now not working with non-levy paying employers at all.

Many of those seeking apprenticeships still need to achieve Level 2 English and Maths, which contributes significantly to their employability. For providers who do not have a specialist Functional Skills team in place, it makes good sense to enter subcontracting arrangements with a provider which has. However, the ESFA is imposing such strict compliance requirements on providers wishing to subcontract that many are likely to avoid working with apprentices who require Functional Skills entirely.

UCEM has worked successfully with a number of government departments and agencies for many years. To deliver apprenticeship programmes for these organisations, we are now required to go through repeated, time-consuming and overbearing procurement processes, despite already being fully approved by the ESFA and listed on the Register of Apprenticeship Training Providers. In some cases we are even required to pay a proportion of the apprenticeship funding for the privilege of being part of a framework contract! We find this practice dubious and hugely wasteful as it diverts resources away from the front line that would be far better spent on supporting apprentices to succeed.

There are many improvements to the apprenticeships system that the government could make to increase take-up and improve access. A good start would be to:

  • Remove artificial barriers that prevent providers from working with non-levy paying employers;
  • Reduce the compliance burden on providers wishing to use subcontracting arrangements, where these improve outcomes for apprentices;
  • Rationalise the procurement system whereby providers are required to spend valuable resources on repeated, unnecessary bidding processes;
  • Stop allowing government agencies to take money out of the system for activities that provide no added value to the apprentice.

At UCEM we are eager to support and enable both the apprenticeship and fair access agendas. Any action you can take on the above recommendations would help enormously.