Gordon Marsden: “Apprenticeships have got a pretty raw deal from the media”

The Shadow Minister for Higher Education, Further Education and Skills argues that apprenticeships must be viewed as equal to university degrees.  

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For Gordon Marsden, the Shadow Minister for Higher Education, Further Education and Skills, a growing enthusiasm for apprenticeships “makes sense”. Marsden, himself a graduate of New College, Oxford, where he studied history, acknowledges that a long-standing “obsession” with university has caused an “imbalance” in the United Kingdom’s employment market. And so the Labour MP for Blackpool South is a firm believer in the value of more flexible and vocational training. “We regularly take on apprentices in the constituency office,” he says proudly. “We’ve helped people to get their Level 3s and 4s in business administration.” 

As tuition fees have soared and rhetoric around education has been “narrowed”, Marsden says, there is now a situation in which there are more graduates than graduate jobs. The mistake made by successive governments of both parties, according to Marsden, was to allow apprenticeships to be seen as “necessarily other, rather than equal to university”. They are too often regarded, he says, “as something that is principally industrial, and exclusive to the construction or engineering sectors, without appreciating the crux of what an apprenticeship actually is”.

And what is that? “An apprenticeship, by its traditional definition, means a skilled person actively engaging with someone and teaching them a trade. It’s not a skill that can just be taken off the shelf… an apprentice has to learn, in detail, on the job. The idea that an apprenticeship should be viewed as the ‘easy’ option is nonsense.”

Indeed, Marsden stresses, an apprenticeship should not denote low-skill or low-pay training. “This problem with perception,” he says, “is, in part, at least, thanks to a pretty raw deal that apprenticeships have got from the media.” He’s quick to clarify: “That’s not a dig at the New Statesman, by the way. But there has been this narrative, one that’s completely blinkered by the idea of university being the only means of social mobility. Yet the irony is that tuition fees, and the debt attached to them, mean that a university education is not a guarantee of ending up better off.”

Perhaps it is not a guarantee, but certain university degrees have been shown to be a valuable commodity in the job market. Research by the Department for Education found that five years after graduation, average annual salaries for students taught at Russell Group universities were £33,500. 

The current minimum wage for an apprentice in the UK is £3.70 per hour – less than half of the national living wage for someone aged 25 or older. Can apprenticeships, then, ever truly be considered competitive? “I think you’ve got to appreciate that the pay for apprenticeships – of course, they need to be higher in some cases – does depend largely on the employer, but hopefully that’ll change with time… certainly, I’m in favour of apprentices being paid fairly and competitively for the work they do. And there are plenty of apprenticeship programmes which do pay a competitive salary.” According to research carried out by trade website RateMyApprenticeship, the average salary for apprenticeships across all sectors in 2018/19 ranged from £19,160 in London to £15,125 in the North East. And according to graduate-jobs.com, the average graduate starting salary in the UK is around £22,000. 

But Marsden points to the long-term cost of university. “Are young people happy about being saddled with debt? There are signs that graduate premiums are being reduced. If you look at longitudinal figures, they’re going down. If you look at the Blackpool area, where my constituency is, where we don’t have a huge number of people going to university, the prospect of an apprenticeship, to earn while you learn, is attractive. If you go and do an apprenticeship with BAE Systems a few miles down the road, and they sponsor you through a course, you’re going to get a lot out of that in terms of your long-term career. It could lead to promotions further down the line, without the burden of debt.”

The government’s apprenticeship levy – a 0.5 per cent tax on UK employers with a paybill totalling more than £3m per year to fund new apprenticeships – was introduced in April 2017. For Marsden, “the devil is in the detail”. One of the Conservatives’ flagship skills policies is “a good idea in principle”, but has been, he feels, “a missed opportunity”. 

There were 375,800 new apprenticeship starts for the 2017/18 academic year, according to official government data, compared with 494,900 in 2016/17, and 509,400 in 2015/16 – a decline of 24.1 and 26.2 per cent respectively. Marsden says: “Labour supports the principle of the levy, but this government has failed to create a system that demonstrates a value to the employers paying into the central pot. The government was slow out of the blocks to establish clear standards for what apprenticeships should cover. That is now the remit of the Institute for Apprenticeships and Technical Education (IFA), but it took a long time to set up.” Where the apprenticeship levy should have been viewed as “a catalyst for inward investment”, Marsden says, it is instead “viewed by some companies as just another inconvenient tax”.

Could the levy, which only affects approximately 2 per cent of UK employers, stand to be more ambitious? Could rolling the levy out to more businesses increase the amount of central funding available, and thus create more high-quality apprenticeships? “I think the main case is for identifying training needs for employers. I think it is an increasingly accepted view that you can’t micro-manage everything from Whitehall. That idea is for the birds. Labour would advocate devolving more processes and ensuring a greater employer input into establishing and modifying the standards of new apprenticeships.” As for engaging smaller businesses, Marsden says there is an argument to suggest that “many non-levy payers feel disengaged” and less inclined to take on apprentices.

“As with anything,” Marsden continues, “the levy is vulnerable to abuse.” He highlights that some larger companies have “rebadged” some of their more junior roles as apprenticeships and are not spending the funding as intended, “which is why it is so important to have clearly defined standards, agreed on by the IFA and employers, to close this sort of loophole”. 

The debate around apprenticeships in general, Marsden hopes, will “evolve”. He is weary of an insistence on juxtaposition with university – “it’s not a case of either or, it’s about making them both viable and attractive options” – and, in the future, he wants as much attention to be paid to apprenticeships at Levels 2 and 3 as at degree-level. “You can’t have a system that concentrates on just one type of training… you need one that is progressive. Levels 2 and 3 are absolutely crucial, for example, in the hospitality and services sector. Just as you don’t need a degree to do every single job – even if we have a saturation of degree holders right now – you don’t need every single apprenticeship to be degree-level. If the watch-word for New Labour was ‘Education, Education, Education’ then the watch-word for Labour now must be ‘Progression, Progression, Progression’. Levels 2 and 3 are important as an access point, which can then lead to a career.” 

The conversation returns to the point about making sense. Apprenticeships, Marsden is convinced, will be key to “bridging that gap” between vocation and education. He notes that “automation and technology” will change the “landscape of work”, and access to diverse and flexible training opportunities is essential to upskilling and re-skilling the UK workforce. “Apprenticeships need to develop at the same pace as society,” Marsden says, “which means being sensitive to changing employer needs and offering a whole range of life chances, rather than just directing our young people towards one train of thought. To me, that makes sense.” 

Rohan Banerjee is a Special Projects Writer at the New Statesman