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Degree Apprenticeships

Volume 723: debated on Monday 28 November 2022

I am currently the only degree apprentice in this House, but I am determined to ensure that I am the first of many. We have seen year-on-year growth in degree-level apprenticeships, with more than 148,000 starts since their reintroduction in 2014, including apprenticeships in law, accounting and clinical science. We are working in schools and colleges and with UCAS to ensure that more young people are aware of the benefits of apprenticeships. We are making £8 million available to higher education providers to expand their degree apprenticeship offers.

In Southend West, 830 young people are undertaking degree apprenticeships, including many at our outstanding South Essex College. Does my right hon. Friend agree that if local businesses that require mechanics, bricklayers, lawyers and so on could be incentivised to connect with the college and help to train apprentices, rather than just providing work placements, it would be a brilliant way for local employers not only to headhunt the best students for good jobs, but to provide better-quality apprenticeships, boost opportunities and boost our local economy?

I completely agree with my hon. Friend, who continues to champion students and businesses in Southend West. The local skills improvement plans that we have introduced under the Skills and Post-16 Education Act 2022 will place employers at the heart of local skills systems and will facilitate more dynamic working arrangements among employers, colleges and other skills providers. Essex Chambers of Commerce has recently been chosen to lead on the development of an LSIP for the Essex, Southend-on-Sea and Thurrock area. It is good to see that South Essex College is working with Essex Chambers of Commerce to achieve that.

I welcome the Secretary of State and her team to their new positions, or back to their old ones. From her work on the Public Accounts Committee, among other things, she will know of the desperate need in this country for digital and cyber skills. At the recent Silicon Milkroundabout, a special day called Next Gen was set up to encourage companies to take on new graduates or people with lower qualifications, but companies said that they would only really take people with three years’ postgraduate experience. Does she think that there is an opportunity in the sector to boost apprenticeships? Would she be willing to work with businesses in Shoreditch to promote them?

I thank the hon. Lady for her welcome. I would be very happy to work with businesses in Shoreditch. When I was the skills and apprenticeships Minister, I worked with Ada, the National College for Digital Skills, and I know that it is vital for digital and cyber offers to be made across the landscape. I recently visited Aston University, which is working with a local college to develop an institute of technology to provide, for instance, much-needed digital apprenticeships and full-time courses, and I would be happy to work with anyone who wants to ensure that that vital provision continues.

I welcome the Secretary of State to her latest position—she has had a dizzying array of jobs recently, so it is great to see her in this post, as I know that she has a real commitment to skills and apprenticeships.

I do not know whether the Secretary of State has had an opportunity to speak at length with the new Minister for Skills, Apprenticeships and Higher Education, the right hon. Member for Harlow (Robert Halfon), but when he chaired the Education Committee he stressed the need for greater flexibility in the apprenticeship levy. He spoke powerfully about too much of it being spent on managerial apprenticeships, and the Committee agreed entirely, so it was a considerable disappointment to hear last week that the Government now appear to be ruling out reform of the levy. Labour’s plan to increase its flexibility has been widely welcomed by employers. Do the Government recognise that the levy is not working, and that we need to give businesses and employers the flexibility they are demanding?

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his comments, and for welcoming me and referring to the variety of jobs that I have had—in fact, I did 30 years’ worth of jobs before I came here, so I am used to a lot of change.

The apprenticeship levy was created to support the uptake and delivery of high-quality apprenticeships, and has been set at a level to fund this employer demand. We are making apprenticeships more flexible, providing new flexi-job and accelerated apprenticeships that are accessible to employers in all sectors—something I was working on when I was last in the Department. We have also improved the levy transfer system so that employers can make greater use of their levy funds. More than 215 employers, including Asda, HomeServe and BT Group, have pledged to transfer £14.62 million to support apprenticeships in businesses of all sizes.