No University? No Problem: The Case for Vocational Education

By George Holt

In 1999, Tony Blair made a commitment to get 50% of students going to University - by 2019 this target had been hit. But was Blair right to insinuate that more people needed to go to University? Probably not.

I shall recount the narrative that a lot of British students are told. Go to school, do your GCSEs, A-Levels and go to university. This is usually learnt from parents, teachers, and fellow students, and for many students, this is the right path - improving their future lifestyle and career massively, but for so many others, it is simply not the case.

Universities are an amazing centre of learning and innovation, but they also do not prepare a lot of people for their adult lives, and with more and more people going to university year after year, this is going to become a big problem. Data from 2002 shows the number of graduates steadily increasing and the figure now sits at roughly 40% as of 2017, surpassing 50% in 2019.

This strategy for getting more and more people into university (that is clearly working), is excellent for students who benefit from the experience. But this means schools and parents take a “one size fits all” approach to their students and that is to get them a university place. This means they will often pressure students because, for the schools, it will allow them to improve statistics on how many of their students go on to university, and for the parents, it’s about what they believe to be best as, after all, isn’t everyone going to university?

This environment makes it exceedingly difficult to choose the alternative path of an apprenticeship, or even straight into work. With the school potentially writing off the student if they are not going to university and choosing not to invest in them, they would face mounting pressure from their family to go anyway.

Another study suggests more and more graduates are struggling to get jobs in their field of choice. Whilst government data suggests that over 90% of apprentices get a job in their respective field after completing their programme, the statistic is closer to half for universities.

Another benefit of vocational based learning is money. When Tony Blair opened the flood gates to university, he also introduced tuition fees and loans. Many graduates never earn enough to pay off their student debt in full; not only is this a nuisance for the graduate, but it is also a great burden for the taxpayer, who pays for these government-backed loans and must bail out the graduate if they have not been able to pay back their loan. On the other hand, apprentices are paid to do their learning through the Apprenticeship Levy, a tax paid for by less than 2% of employers according to the government. Employers are given an allowance of £15,000 to spend on a single apprentice, but this does not include their salary, which is managed by the employer. So, employers are already well incentivised to take apprentices, but how can we improve uptake in apprenticeships?

I believe that the problem lies in the stigma of not going to university. This is something we can change, but it will not happen overnight; it is a change in culture. One way to achieve this is to show the country how successful apprenticeships can be - existing apprentices are already unlocking their potential and, over the course of time, will be demonstrating their abilities. The way schools think needs to change, they need to be incentivised to encourage apprenticeships and universities equally rather than having a preference. This way students can find the right path for them. This could be encouraged by schools refraining from publishing the number of their students that go to university and instead emphasizing how many of them progress to the “further education of their choice” which would include apprenticeships. This will let schools empower students to choose their own path and could lead to a breakdown of the stigma which overwhelmingly favours university.

Being a former apprentice, I have seen how well it works. It has allowed me to have financial freedom, do a job I enjoy, learn more about my field, and begin a fulltime career at the age of 20. This is something I hope the scheme can bring to more and more people. Rishi Sunak has introduced extra temporary incentives for businesses to hire apprentices - I look forward to seeing the result of this and if it is a success, some form of continuation.

In the meantime, I would encourage students who are not yet decided about what their next step is to consider an apprenticeship and have a look at some of the options on websites like:

Disclaimer: All views expressed in this piece belong solely to the author and do not reflect the views of Demographica as a company.

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