Opinion: Why young people need alternatives to university

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“I don’t know why I have to go to uni, I just know I need to…” said one of the young people in City & Guilds' Great Expectations research, released today. This, for me, really sums up what is still so very wrong in our education system. This young man has been told that he needs to go to university, probably by his parents, school and peers alike, despite not understanding why he is going to blindly follow that route.

Don’t get me wrong, university can be a fantastic experience and a great route through to a career for many young people. However, with the average graduate debt now standing at £44,000 and our research partners EMSI predicting that only 30 per cent of jobs will be at graduate level in eight years’ time, there’s got to be an alternative.

Something that’s clear from speaking to young people and their parents is how unaware they are of the different educational pathways that exist. Schools do everything they can to hold on to bright young things and careers advice in schools often focuses on the next step in education, rather than looking at the job a young person wants to do and working out the best route to get there. It’s no surprise that almost 70 per cent of our respondents wanted to go to university when they are frankly unaware of the alternatives.

Another thing working against young people is their misunderstanding about what employers want in new recruits. The majority of 14- to 19-year-olds in our research talked about grades and academic achievement as the most important things for securing a good job, whereas we know from employers that attitude and soft skills such as communication and teamwork are often more valued, along with previous work experience. Worryingly, the young people we surveyed did not see work experience as important at all for securing a job and without universal work experience in schools, the world of work is completely alien to many young people before they enter it.

Learning the skills employers want

We believe that interacting with employers, whether through structured work experience, employer visits or mentoring, is crucial in helping teenagers to understand the range of jobs available to them and be inspired by jobs they might not otherwise have thought of. Employers can also provide examples of different routes through to employment such as apprenticeships or other on-the-job training. One of the reasons we created the City & Guilds TechBac is to give 14- to 19-year-olds direct access to employers and the environment to learn the skills employers are demanding in the modern workplace.

Convincing young people and their parents to explore alternative pathways is one thing, but the reality is that continuing on in academic study is much more understandable and easy to access for everyone. The university application system is well understood by society, whereas you have to be fairly persistent to find a suitable apprenticeship if that’s the route you choose to take. We produced a report in October with our Industry Skills Board – a group of employers who all have responsibility for apprenticeship delivery – called Making Apprenticeships Work. One of the sections in the report deals with access to apprenticeships and in it we recommend a UCAS-style application process for apprenticeships. Young people should be able to see and apply for apprenticeships at the same time as they would be applying for university and it should be made easier for a young person to transfer on to an apprenticeship from an existing course should a vacancy arise. Similarly, the progression opportunities within the apprenticeship system need to be made clearer. It is now perfectly possible to obtain a degree-level qualification through the apprenticeship route, which increasingly seems like the sensible option for those not wishing to start their working life in debt.

It was positive to see the government’s commitment to quality in the apprenticeship system in the spending review announcement last week. We need to continue this focus on quality if we are to successfully widen the choices for young people and, crucially, give professional and technical pathways the parity of esteem they now so clearly deserve.

Kirstie Donnelly (pictured) is managing director of City & Guilds

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