Workplace training in England needs tighter funding rules, according to a think-tank which calculated that half of all courses financed through the government’s apprenticeship levy could have been paid for through existing training budgets or student loans.

Some £1.2bn of the £2.4bn money raised since the levy was introduced in April 2017 had been spent on “fake” apprenticeships, including rebadged MBA courses and low-skilled jobs training, Education and Skills (EDSK) concluded in a report based on official data.

Entitled Runaway Training, the report found £550m of levy funding had been spent on management training courses for experienced employees, which previously would have been funded from professional development budgets, the report said.

These included higher education institutions relabelling highly qualified academics, many of whom already have PhDs, as apprentices in order to put them through levy-funded professional development courses.

And £235m had been used to teach people in low-skilled jobs, including working at a shop checkout, serving in a bar and airline cabin crew. These roles often require minimal training, pay low wages and do not meet any established definition of an apprenticeship, according to EDSK.

“Despite being set up with the best intentions, the apprenticeship levy is now descending into farce,” said Tom Richmond, EDSK director and a former adviser to ministers at the Department for Education.

The report adds to criticism from business groups and training providers that the levy, which forces employers with annual wage bills over £3m to set aside an equivalent of 0.5 per cent of this sum for workplace training, is not performing as it should.

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There were 393,400 apprenticeship starts in 2018-19, a 4.7 per cent increase on the previous 12 months, according to the Department for Education.

However, a recent survey by advisory firm Grant Thornton found that about half the companies forced to set aside money under the levy programme had yet to spend any of it, with a quarter unclear about what benefits an apprentice would bring to their business.

EDSK said the Department for Education should introduce a new definition of an apprenticeship that is benchmarked against the world’s best technical education systems. This would mean that the term apprenticeship could only be used for courses at the international standard of Level 3, equivalent to an A level qualification.

All low-skill and generic training courses that do not meet this new definition to be scrapped immediately and degree apprenticeships should be excluded from levy funding, the EDSK report added.

“If the government wants apprenticeships to be taken seriously by young people, parents and teachers, they must protect this historic brand by scrapping all the fake apprenticeships,” Mr Richmond said.

“Not only will this save hundreds of millions [of pounds] each year, it will provide more opportunities for young people to train as genuine apprentices, especially those living in the most deprived areas.”

The DfE said in response to the report that its reforms meant that training “cannot be called an apprenticeship” unless it lasts for at least 12 months, includes at least 20 per cent off-the-job training and meets other “minimum quality requirements”.

“The Institute for Apprenticeships and Technical Education approves all apprenticeship standards to ensure they meet high-quality requirements,” it said.

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