UK business schools are hitting back at government plans to cull controversial MBA apprenticeships by breaking courses into two so that the majority of costs would still be covered by levy funding, the Financial Times has reported.

Since the introduction of the UK apprenticeship levy in 2017, the number of MBA apprenticeships has ballooned, prompting concerns in the sector and Whitehall around whether funding intended for on-the-job training should be used to upskill senior executives.

Earlier this month, it was reported that the government would scrap the qualification, which was included as part of the level seven senior leader occupational standard, in June, when it is expected to publish a review of MBA apprenticeships that was ordered by education secretary Gavin Williamson.

But deans of business schools are taking a stand, and plan to develop workarounds so that MBA apprenticeships can still be offered, but in an altered form, according to the FT.

David Oglethrope, dead of Cranfield university’s school of management, reportedly told the newspaper that his institution would continue to offer an MBA apprenticeship “whatever the outcome” of the review is come June. Under his proposal, learners would undertake a senior leader apprenticeship and then complete an additional piece of coursework while paying an added fee to obtain an MBA. Some students would perhaps have to pay this charge – which could be up to £9,000 – themselves.

“I have been fighting tooth and nail to say leave it as it is, but this means we could still offer the qualification,” Oglethorpe told the FT. “The feedback we get from employers is that it helps them attract and retain key staff. A fifth of our intake come from black, Asian and minority ethnic backgrounds and 15% had never been to university before starting the programme.

“The senior leader apprenticeship standard has been mapped on to an MBA curriculum, making it easy for us to offer an MBA for those that would like one. We would have to demarcate the two qualifications but that is relatively simple to do.”

Oglethorpe’s stance is likely to cause further friction between proponents of the MBA apprenticeship and its critics, who argue that the original aims of the levy – which requires businesses with payrolls exceeding £3 million to set aside an equivalent of 0.5% of this sum for workplace training – to onboard more school leavers and upskill standard staff are not being met. In the first full year following the introduction of the levy, the number of apprenticeship starts fell 26% compared to 2015/16, before the levy was introduced. Meanwhile, the proportion of high-level apprenticeships, equivalent to bachelor’s degrees and above, increased from 5.3% to 12.8% over the same period.

Other leaders of business schools have reportedly told the FT that they are weighing similar plans to Oglethorpe.

“The MBA is seen as a significant thing on a CV, so there will always be an incentive to offer a route to getting this through the apprenticeship,” said John Board, dean of Henley Business School. “The bigger danger is that the government cuts the price employers must pay for the apprenticeship, which would no longer make it viable for schools like us to offer our course. You would then be left with providers who only pay lip service to the standards needed for high-quality management training.”

The UK accreditation body for management has also weighed in on the issue, suggesting that a heavy-handed government telling companies what to spend their levy funds on would not be well received.

“It would set a strange precedent if the government said that employers cannot pay for their employees to study for this qualification if that is what they want to do,” Daisy Hooper, the CMI’s head of policy and public affairs, reportedly told the FT. “The apprenticeship levy has broadened access to the MBA. Restricting this will move it back to becoming an elitist qualification.”

Date published: 29 April 2020

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