Over the past 18 months we've put a massive amount of effort and investment into strengthening apprenticeships in this country - and it shows. Last year more than 450,000 people started an apprenticeship, roughly the same number as those who started in higher education. The increase on the previous year is a whopping 63%. These are record numbers to reflect a real commitment.
The reason for that commitment is simple - apprenticeships are right at the heart of the kind of economy we want to build: one where many more young people have the chance to learn a proper trade; where we have a highly-skilled workforce; where we're not just borrowing and spending huge amounts but really earning our way, making and selling the goods the world wants to buy. Apprenticeships are a vital thread running through this vision.
So we have massively increased investment to over £1.5 billion - and today we announce three more important steps we're taking.
First, we're opening the second round of bidding for the Higher Apprenticeship Fund. This fund has a very clear purpose: to increase the number of apprenticeships available at the highest level. For far too long academic subjects have been elevated above practical learning and these rigorous, well-respected qualifications - equivalent to a traditional degree - are going to help end that imbalance. We're looking to see new higher-level apprenticeships in fields like engineering, aerospace and renewable technologies, and to that end we've got £6 million of funding available. Now we want businesses, universities and training providers to start putting their bids together to make this a reality.
Second, we're launching new incentives to encourage small businesses to take on apprentices. The benefits of doing so are proven and overwhelming: you get loyal staff; you train them as you wish; and you recoup your investment rapidly. You just need to look at the board of Rolls Royce - where half of them started as apprentices - to see the business case for doing this. But still, not enough small businesses go this route, which is why we're offering new financial rewards. From today, if you're a small or medium-sized business without any apprentices, and you hire one aged 16-24, then you're eligible for £1500. So if you're reading this and you fit the bill, get hiring - there are 40,000 payments to be snapped up. Find out more about it here.
Third, we're giving employers more control over training. Instead of mainly streaming the money through training providers we're going to give it straight to employers, putting them in the driving seat to commission or develop their own training. There is £250 million in the pot to achieve this - and today we're detailing how employers can get a share of this and get the skills they need. Read more about how to bid here.
If we want an economy that is truly world-class, high-skilled and open for everyone willing to work hard, then we have got to keep putting our efforts into strengthening apprenticeships with bold measures like this. That's what this government is pledged to do.