Fewer feeling the force of FE

As one year ends, we look at one student's view of the plethora of courses on offer and a college principal's view of his role

The number of school-leavers expecting to go on to full-time further and higher education is falling, according to new statistics from the Scottish Executive.

The results, taken from a survey of 17-year-olds conducted just over a year ago (TESS, December 10), show that 59 per cent of females and 46 per cent of males anticipated being in full-time education by now. This contrasts with the previous survey in 1999, when 68 per cent of females and 53 per cent of males anticipated being in full-time education a year on.

The Executive is largely blaming debt, claiming this is putting young people off student life. This is a fair claim, given that many will have student loans and the majority of banks now offer students accounts with interest-free overdraft facilities. Student debt in the UK now stands at a record high of pound;14.6 billion.

The Executive wants to remedy this, with calls being made for the reintroduction of student grants to ease the harsh reality of student finances and ensure the country's academic talents are not denied opportunities, regardless of their background.

Debt alone cannot, however, be enough to scare off potential students. And if it is a matter of debt, why are the numbers of those anticipating going on to work full-time not dramatically increased?

Since 1999, the options available to school leavers have increased, with the introduction of a wider range of college and university courses, and initiatives such as modern apprenticeships. There are now more ways than ever to enter a profession.

Jordan McCarter, a first-year law student at Aberdeen University, did not go straight to university from school. Instead, he opted for a year of working, to give himself more time to decide what he wanted to do. He says he had had "enough of the academic shift and wanted to do something different".

Asked what he thought was causing the fall in school leavers going on to further education, Mr McCarter said: "There are plenty of ways to get on in life other than going to university. Everybody goes to university now as well, and employers will be looking more at personality than just degrees.

"Some of the new degrees might seem appealing but people will be reluctant to take them up because they are not as respected by employers," he added.

Many of the other students I spoke to felt that they were at university only because they could not think of anything better to do or felt it was expected. One girl described going to university as being "just what you do". Many insisted that college and university educations were no longer the be-all and end-all, or felt, like Mr McCarter, that the degree was no longer the holy grail of the jobs market.

Modern apprenticeships have proved very popular among school-leavers and competition for places is fierce. These schemes offer education in a trade simultaneously with an income, which is more than can be said for full-time education, which offers learning but with expenditure attached.

The range of courses available now is enormous and, whereas figures were higher five years ago when the number of courses in Scotland was more limited, perhaps it is the case that there is too much variety, making the decision about what to do even more difficult.

The Executive survey also shows a fall in the numbers who anticipated going straight into full-time work after school - down from a third to just 25 per cent. With both figures falling, this would suggest that pupils are confused about their futures.

Three-quarters of pupils in the survey said they had spoken individually to a careers adviser during S4, and 28 per cent had visited outside school hours (up 4 per cent on 1999). The advice is clearly there and being widely used, but it seems students are not for committing themselves.

With the increased number of options now available, it is possible that school leavers are considering other options rather than going on to university or college simply because they are expected to or because everyone else is.

Many are taking a year out to allow them a break from study and to do something a bit different while they can still afford it. Again, there are now more opportunities than ever to do this.

With degrees and HNDs seemingly ubiquitous these days, their currency appears devalued to the clear-eyed school leaver - like a winning lottery ticket owned by the entire population. If there is uncertainty over what to study too, many potential students will be left asking what is the point in doing courses they are unsure about, and spending all that money but not having the guarantee of a job at the end of it.

The figures will always be subject to change, as different groups' views will vary, but it is now up to the Executive to take the doubt out of these options and focus on the job prospects certain courses offer, rather than just the courses themselves. Contrary to popular belief, students do want to work. They just need to be shown the way.

Rory Macdonald is a freelance journalist and a student at the University of Aberdeen.

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