‘The great training robbery’ – one year on, is the apprenticeship levy having the desired effect?

It’s now been a full year in operation, but will the apprenticeship levy “incentivise more employers to provide quality apprenticeships” and “transform the lives of young people who secure them”, as the government hopes?

A new report from Reform, which has reviewed the available evidence, suggests that “significant reforms are needed”.

Purpose of the levy

Unveiled in 2015 as part of the government’s commitment to deliver three million apprenticeship starts by 2020, the apprenticeship levy aims to encourage employers to invest in apprenticeship programmes and raise additional funds to improve the quality and quantity of apprenticeships.

The levy mandates that employers in England with annual wage bills of over £3 million pay a tax of 0.5%, which can then be spent on apprenticeship training. Employers pay their levy contributions via the PAYE system into a digital account held by HM Revenue and Customs (HMRC). Smaller employers can also access the funds generated through the levy, but they must pay a ‘co-investment’ of 10% towards the cost of the training.

According to the 2015 Spending review and Autumn statement, the levy was expected to raise £3 billion per annum by 2019/20. However, the evidence reviewed by Reform suggests the levy is instead leading to unintended consequences.

Lower quality apprenticeships and bureaucratic burden?

The number of apprenticeship starts following the introduction of the levy has continued to fall. Reform highlights that the number of people starting an apprenticeship in the six months after it was introduced was over 40% lower than the same period the previous year. The most recent figures are little improved – in December 2017 there were 16,700 apprenticeship starts compared to 21,600 in December 2016.

Reform also found that younger and less experienced people have been particularly badly affected with the focus now being towards Higher and Degree level apprenticeships. And many apprenticeships are now for low-skilled, low-wage jobs or for re-labelled management programmes and do not meet the original definition of an apprenticeship, thus diminishing the quality.

The OCED recently highlighted the importance of maintaining skilled roles in apprenticeships, noting that:

“In the long run, even just a small proportion of low-quality apprenticeships can damage the overall reputation and “brand” of apprenticeships.”

Skills, Knowledge, Abilities

The use of the levy to re-badge existing training courses as a way to shift the costs onto government is a particular concern. A CIPD survey of more than 1000 organisations in January 2018 found that:

  • 46% of levy-paying employers think the it will encourage their organisation to rebadge current training in order to claim back their allowance
  • 40% of levy-paying employers said it will make little or no difference to the amount of training they offer
  • 35% of employers will be more likely to offer apprenticeships to existing employees instead of new recruits

Commenting on the findings, skills adviser at the CIPD, Lizzie Crowley, said “this is not adding any additional value and is creating a lot of additional bureaucracy and cost.

Reform argues that the impact on the public finances of allowing employers to re-label courses in this way should not be underestimated. It is estimated that inappropriately labelled ‘apprenticeships’ represent 37% of the people training towards any apprenticeship standard – a figure that could become even higher if employers are allowed to continue to rebadge training as they see fit.

If current trends continue, the government could be spending almost £600 million per annum by 2019-20 on training courses that have been incorrectly labelled ‘apprenticeships’.

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Concerns have also consistently been raised over the complexity of the levy for employers. It has been claimed that the slump in apprenticeship starts could be blamed on “a combination of confusion surrounding the Apprenticeship Levy and the ‘increased administrative burden’ it placed on employers”. The Reform report highlights that the substantial increase in bureaucracy, among other issues, has led business groups to brand the levy ‘disastrous’, ‘confusing’ and ‘broken’.

Despite this, however, there is still support for the levy. A recent survey by the Chartered Management Institute (CMI) of over 1,500 managers found that two-thirds (63%) agree that it is needed to increase employer investment in skills. It has been suggested that employers have ‘fundamentally failed’ to prepare for the levy as the scale of the challenge was not recognised. And a lack of clarity from the government has also been attributed some blame.

Way forward

The evidence would suggest there is potential for the levy but not in its current form.

The Reform report recommends six significant changes if the objectives for funding apprenticeships are to be realised:

  • there should be a renewed focus on quality over quantity
  • a new internationally-benchmarked definition of an ‘apprenticeship’ should be introduced
  • the 10% employer co-investment requirement should be removed
  • a simpler ‘apprenticeship voucher’ model should replace the existing HMRC digital payment system
  • all apprenticeship standards and end-point assessments should be assigned a fixed cost
  • Ofqual should be made the only option for quality assuring the end-point assessments to maintain standards

If the necessary changes are made, the Reform report concludes that “apprentices, taxpayers and employers across the country stand to benefit for many years to come.”


If you enjoyed reading this, you may be interested in our other posts on diversity in apprenticeships and higher apprenticeships.

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