The UK government should give cities and businesses more flexibility over apprenticeships

An apprentice at AirBus helps to build a plane. Image: Getty.

The theme of this year’s National Apprenticeships Week (NAW) was ‘Apprenticeships work’, and employers, apprentices and providers across the country gathered to showcase the success of the system.

This anecdotal evidence is also supported by more systematic evidence collected and analysed by organisations such as the What Works Centre. The data shows that apprenticeships have a positive impact for apprentices themselves, as well as for businesses and the wider economy.

However, if there’s widespread agreement that apprenticeships work, it is then also crucial to ensure the apprenticeships system works efficiently, so that more people can benefit from it. In a bid to boost the number of apprenticeships starts to 3m by 2020, the government overhauled the apprenticeships system by introducing new standards and the ‘Apprenticeship Levy’, which came into force in April last year.

This levy is a charge on larger employers to fund apprenticeships. It’s created a central pot of funding that large employers can access to pay for the schemes. (Government partially matches these funds, by making a 10 per cent contribution.)

But this change – which was meant to put employers in the driving seat – was welcomed with little enthusiasm by those very same employers. And, interestingly, the number of apprenticeships starts has been down since.

While it will take time to adjust to the new system and understand its full impact, there are some actions that national government and local leaders can take now to improve apprenticeships delivery within the system as it stands.

Complement the existing system with measures to target potential future apprentices

Financial incentives such as the levy are a way to improve take-up of the apprenticeship scheme by businesses, by ensuring they have a stake in the system. However, to improve the number of apprenticeships starts – especially among young people – interventions aimed at connecting them with apprenticeships opportunities are also needed.

For example, evidence from the What Works Centre toolkit suggests that mentoring has a positive impact on awareness and completion in countries such as Australia and the US. These mentoring schemes could easily be replicated across the UK at a little cost, and could help familiarise young people with apprenticeships and other opportunities they may have not heard of otherwise.

The launch of the ‘Mayor’s mentors’ project by Andy Street last May is hopefully a first – and not isolated – step in this direction. Furthermore, awareness around apprenticeships could be enhanced by giving local areas control over the levy underspend (employers have just two years to spend the levy, after which they lose control over this money). This could be used by local partners to raise awareness among students and businesses with initiatives such as Apprenticeships Hubs.

Give employers more flexibility to experiment with levy-transfer and pooling while ensuring quality and evaluation

One of the issues with the levy is that while it mandates large employers to spend money on skills training, it takes away freedom over how employers choose to deliver this training.

A way to introduce greater flexibility would be to allow businesses to pool their money together with other businesses to deliver apprenticeships. From April this year, businesses will be able to transfer 10 per cent of their levy to other businesses, if they feel they would benefit from this (e.g. to businesses in their supply chain).

This option could be explored further, by allowing employers to transfer or pool more than just 10 per cent of their levy. That would allow a number of businesses to club together to deliver a bigger programme than they could on their own, which has the potential to improve the quality of provision. A number of local authorities and businesses (such as universities) have already put forward proposals on this matter. It is now up to the government to use them as pilots to evaluate the impact of different approaches to apprenticeships provision.

Ensure the apprenticeship system is not disconnected from the wider technical education system and skills provision

A second way to introduce greater flexibility would be to allow the levy to be spent on technical education more broadly, rather than just apprenticeships.

By forcing businesses to invest in apprenticeships, there is a risk that they simply shift money previously allocated from other forms of training (which may be more appropriate for their needs) rather than increasing investment. Work by the Chartered Institute of Personne-l and Development suggests that a number of employers do intend to rebadge their spending.

Given that the aim of the levy is to increase and improve skills provision, we need to ensure businesses invest more resources into training, rather than simply switching from one form of training to another.

Apprenticeships aren’t the only successful way of delivering technical skills training. For this reason, the government should consider widening the apprenticeships levy into a skills levy, requiring employers to spend the money collected through the levy to offer apprenticeships or other forms of high-quality training.

Apprenticeships take-up varies across the country, and so do business needs. There is still much that the government can do to make the apprenticeship scheme – and the wider technical education system – work better for apprentices and businesses in cities across the country.

Putting in place measures to test and evaluate the above ideas would not only give us a better understanding of how an efficient skills system works. It would also give the government and businesses more tools to make a success out of technical education.

Elena Magrini is a researcher at the Centre for Cities, on whose website this article originally appeared.

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In South Africa's cities, evictions are happening despite a national ban

An aerial view shows a destroyed house in Lawley, south of Johannesburg, on April 20, 2020. The city has been demolishing informal structures on vacant land despite a moratorium on evictions. (Marco Longari/AFP via Getty Images)

On the morning of 15 July, a South African High Court judge ruled that the city of Cape Town’s Anti-Land Invasion Unit had illegally evicted a man when it destroyed the shack where he was living.

That afternoon, the Anti-Land Invasion Unit was out again, removing shacks in another informal settlement.

Evictions were banned in South Africa for nine weeks, after the national government placed the country under a strict Covid-19 lockdown in late March. At present, eviction orders are automatically suspended until the country moves to a lower “alert level” and can only be carried out with a special order from a judge.

Yet major cities including Cape Town, Johannesburg and eThekwini (created through the merger of Durban with several surrounding communities), have continued to use municipal law enforcement agencies and private security companies to remove people from informal housing. In many cases those operations have been conducted without a court order – something required under regular South African law.

Around 900 people were evicted from three informal settlements in eThekwini during the eviction ban, according to the Church Land Programme, a local NGO. Its director, Graham Philpott, says it’s also aware of evictions in other informal settlements.

While evictions aren’t a “new experience” in these communities, the NGO released a report on lockdown evictions because they were “so explicitly illegal”. “There was a moratorium in place,” Philpott says, “and the local municipality acted quite flagrantly against it. There’s no confusion, there’s no doubt whatsoever, it is illegal. But it is part of a trend where the eThekwini municipality has acted illegally in evicting the poor from informal settlements.”

Evictions also took place in Cape Town and Johannesburg during so-called “hard lockdown” according to local activists. In eThekwini and other municipalities, the evictions have continued despite restrictions. In Cape Town, authorities pulled a naked man, Bulelani Qholani, from his shack. That incident, which was captured on video, drew condemnation from the national government and four members of the Anti-Land Invasion unit were suspended. 

The cities say they’re fighting “land invasions” – illegal occupations without permission from the land owner.

“Land invasions derail housing and service projects, lead to the pollution of waterways, severely prejudice deserving housing beneficiaries and cause property owners to lose their investments over night,” Cape Town’s executive mayor, Dan Plato said in a statement. (Plato has also claimed that Qholani did not live in the shack he was pulled from and that he disrobed when municipal authorities arrived.)

South African municipalities often claim that the shacks they destroy are unoccupied. 

If they were occupied, says Msawakhe Mayisela, a spokesman for the eThekwini municipality, the city would get a court order before conducting an eviction. “Everything we’re doing is within the ambit of the law,” Mayisela says. But “rogue elements” are taking advantage of Covid-19, he added.

“We fully understand that people are desperately in need of land, but the number of people that are flocking to the cities is too much, the city won’t be able to provide housing or accommodation for everyone overnight,” he says. 

While eThekwini claims to be a caring city, local activists say the evictions show otherwise.

In one case, 29 women were evicted from shacks during the hard lockdown. With nowhere to go, they slept in an open field and were arrested by the South African Police Service for violating the lockdown, Philpott says.

“These evictions are dehumanizing people whose dignity is already compromised in many ways,” says S’bu Zikode, the president of Abahlali baseMjondolo, a community organization whose Zulu name translates to “the people of the shacks”. 

“It has reminded us that we are the people that do not count in our society.”

Municipal law enforcement and private security contractors hired by cities regularly fire rubber bullets, or even live ammunition, at residents during evictions. Some 18 Abahlali baseMjondolo activists have been killed since the organization was founded in 2005, Zikode says, most by the eThekwini Land Invasion Unit and Metro Police.

(Mayisela says that if city employees have broken the law, Abahlali baseMjondolo can file a complaint with the police. “There is no conclusive evidence to the effect that our members have killed them,”  he says.)

Other Abahlali baseMjondolo activists have been killed by what Zikode calls “izinkabi,” hitmen hired by politicians. Two eThekwini city councillors were sentenced to life in prison 2016 after they organized the killing of Thuli Ndlovu, an Abahlali baseMjondolo organizer. A member of the Land Invasion Unit who is currently facing a charge of attempted murder after severely injuring a person during an eviction remains on the job, Zikode says.

South Africa’s 1996 constitution is intended to protect the public from arbitrary state violence and guarantees a right to housing, as well as due process in evictions. But for Zikode, the South African constitution is a “beautiful document on a shelf”.

“For the working class and the poor, it’s still difficult to have access to court. You’ve got to have money to get to court,” he says. 

The actions by municipal law enforcement are breaking down social trust, says Buhle Booi, a member of the Khayelitsha Community Action Network, a community group in the largest township in Cape Town.

“There’s a lack of police resources and those very few police resources that they have, they use to destroy people’s homes, to destroy people’s peace, rather than fighting crime, real criminal elements that we see in our society,” Booi says.

For him, it’s a continuation of the practices of the colonial and apartheid governments, pushing poor people, most of whom are Black, to the periphery of cities.

Around one-fifth of South Africa’s urban population live in shacks or informal dwellings, according to a 2018 report by SERI. Many more live in substandard housing. City governments maintain that the shacks destroyed during anti-land invasion operations are unfinished and unoccupied. But Edward Molopi, a research and advocacy officer at SERI, says that this claim is an attempt to escape their legal obligations to get a court order and to find alternative accommodation for affected people. 

The roots of the current eviction crisis go back to apartheid, which barred non-white people from living in cities. Between the 1940s and 1970s, tens of thousands of people were forcibly relocated from neighbourhoods like Johannesburg’s Sophiatown and Cape Town’s District Six to remote townships.

In the 26 years following the end of apartheid, deepening economic inequality and rampant unemployment have limited access to formal housing for millions of South Africans. Government housing programs have mostly focused on building small stand-alone homes, often on the peripheries of cities far from jobs and amenities.

While these well-intentioned projects have built millions of homes, they’ve failed to keep up with demand, says Marie Huchzermeyer, a professor at the Centre for Urbanism & Built Environment Studies at the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg. Government-funded housing projects “will never on it’s own be enough,” she says. “It has to be accompanied by land release.”

Government policies call for the “upgrading” of informal settlements and the formalization of residents’ occupation. But “there are still very, very, very few projects” of that nature in South Africa, Huchzermeyer says. “Even if it’s an informal settlement that’s been around for 20 years, there still seems to be a political wish to punish people for having done that.” The government wants people to go through the formal process of being given a house, she says – and for them to be thankful to the government for providing it.

At the municipal level, change will require “real leadership around informal settlement upgrading and around ensuring that land is available for people to occupy,” she says. 

Despite the end of enforced racial segregation, spacial apartheid remains a factor in South Africa. There are few mixed-income neighbourhoods. Those who can afford to often live behind walls in sprawling low-density suburbs, while the poor live in overcrowded slums and apartment buildings.

The creation of the apartheid city “didn't happen by chance,” says Amira Osman, a professor of architecture at the Tshwane University of Technology. “It was a deliberate, structured approach to the design of the city. We need a deliberate, structured approach that will undo that.”

Since last fall, Johannesburg’s Inclusionary Housing Policy has required developments of 20 or more units to set aside 30% of those units for low-income housing.

The policy, which faced significant opposition from private developers, won’t lead to dramatic change, says Sarah Charlton, a professor at the Centre for Urbanism and Built Environment Studies, but it is “an important and significant step.”

Zikode isn’t optimistic that change will come for shack dwellers, however.

“People in the high positions of authority pretend that everything is normal,” he says. “They pretend that everyone is treated justly, they pretend that everyone has homes with running water, that everyone has a piece of land – and hide the truth and the lies of our democracy.”

Jacob Serebrin is a freelance journalist currently based in Johannesburg. Follow him on Twitter.