What cutting contentious funding means for the executive MBA

Three years ago, at the age of 39, Avtar Boparai became an apprentice. He could do so because of a change in the way workplace training was funded in England — through a levy on employers that had to be spent within two years or be taken by the government in tax.

Like other levy payers, Boparai’s employer at the time — the children’s charity Barnardo’s — was free to fund whatever level of apprenticeship it felt necessary, giving the trainee time off during the working week to study. In Boparai’s case this meant a senior leadership programme at Cranfield School of Management in south-east England, at the end of which he graduated with an executive MBA.

“I did not want to miss this opportunity because I could not afford to pay for an MBA on my own,” he says. “It is the most valuable thing that I have ever done.”

He is now a professional development expert at Corndel, a management and technology training provider, coaching mentoring and teaching on the data professional diploma, which can also be funded with the apprenticeship levy.

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But his peers will now have to find other ways to achieve what he has, because this experiment in funding EMBAs as a form of apprenticeship has come to an end.

These senior leadership apprenticeships attracted controversy because of the use of levy funds for a business masters and because entry-level apprenticeships for school leavers declined sharply after the levy was introduced in April 2017. EDSK, a think-tank, labelled the senior leadership qualification a “fake” apprenticeship. Since September, it has no longer been possible for new senior leadership apprentices to fund a masters with levy money.

Demand for EMBAs in the UK rose rapidly after the levy was introduced. Only around 500 people graduated from EMBA courses in the 2017-18 academic year, according to the Chartered Association of Business Schools (Cabs). This summer there were 15,000.

The increase is partly down to a rise in applications since the pandemic, though the levy was a significant factor, says Robert MacIntosh, Cabs chair and faculty pro vice-chancellor for business and law at Northumbria University in north-east England. “Lots of member schools had executive and part-time MBA programmes that were struggling, then suddenly they found they had grown like topsy,” he says.

Lorraine Stockle, associate director of talent acquisition for Europe, the Middle East and Africa at US telecoms company Verizon, also benefited from a levy-funded EMBA, graduating in August from the senior leader apprenticeship programme at Henley Business School in southern England. “When I saw the opportunity to get a great qualification with a really good business school, it seemed crazy not to take it,” she says. “But I also did it to update my skills.”

The apprenticeship rules meant Stockle had to take time out from her working day to go to classes, rather than attending at weekends as is typical for EMBA students. One benefit of the qualification has been to broaden her network at Verizon. “I now do stakeholder mapping, where I am thinking about everyone I need to engage with if I want to roll out an initiative,” she says. “The EMBA gave me a justification to [meet] with different levels of management to understand their perspectives.”

Lorraine Stockle’s EMBA has helped her broaden her network at her company
Lorraine Stockle’s EMBA has helped her broaden her network at her company © Anna Gordon

The University of Exeter Business School in south-west England had stopped running an EMBA because of a lack of applicants after the levy usage change. However, demand for the senior leadership apprenticeship programme let the school recreate the kind of part-time study its previous EMBA cohorts would undertake for its general MBA.

Since it launched the programme in 2018, in partnership with financial services group JPMorgan, more than 500 people have gained a levy-funded MBA from Exeter. Students have come from a broader range of backgrounds than the school historically has attracted to its MBA classes, including the NHS and other public-sector bodies.

“The biggest benefit of the apprenticeship programme compared with our MBA is the way it created opportunities for people who wouldn’t have done this before,” says Rachael Johnstone, director of degree apprenticeships. “It also integrates study with the workplace in a way MBA programmes often do not. The employer gets on board.”

Funding MBAs from money that might have provided workplace training for school leavers was always going to be controversial. However, Exeter’s MBA team feel it is too early to say whether demand for EMBAs will fall. Stuart Robinson, associate dean for professional education, notes that Exeter has enrolled about 70 students as senior leadership apprentices for the new academic year. “What we cannot see is how many people will be willing to upgrade to the MBA, although from the conversations we have had I think it will be the majority,” he says.

At Exeter, although it will now cost an extra £4,000-£5,000 to obtain an MBA after the apprenticeship programme, it will be easier for students as it can be completed at weekends, rather than during office hours under the apprenticeship levy rule, Johnstone notes.

Students can also take a wider variety of courses to obtain their EMBA credits than are available under the apprenticeship programme. “We can start with a blank page and say, ‘What sort of challenges do you want to deal with for your organisation?’” Johnstone adds.

MacIntosh is more sceptical. “The senior leadership apprenticeship got a scale because it was a really winning formula. It was a great funding mechanism and it helped schools with what they were really struggling with — getting big enough cohorts on their EMBA programmes,” he says.

“Investing in your management skills is a good idea for employers, but there is a lot of pressure on company finances, which means it is often not seen as a pressing enough issue. Removing the incentive the apprenticeship levy gave is a real mis-step.”