University tuition fees are on the rise and are now up to three times more than they were five years ago; there are reports that the government plans to sell off billions of pounds’ worth of student debt to private companies; and a third of graduates "regret" going to university. Our recent research also shows that employers are looking for skills not currently being delivered by mainstream education, with "the ability to focus on finishing tasks" and "collaboration and teamwork" those that they value the most. Add all of this together and it’s clear we need a viable education alternative for young people today.
And yet, in schools and colleges right across the country, education professionals continue to steer young people towards university. By doing so, apprenticeships are cast off and characterised as little more than a last resort for those not deemed "worthy" to attend university. This is preventing many from reaching their full potential and is causing lasting damage to young people’s wellbeing in the process. Through our "Eudaimonia!" report we found that people who had experienced a negative educational environment felt less satisfied with their lives as adults, leading to a 30 per cent drop in wellbeing scores.
The viable alternative to university
The government seems to have recognised that apprenticeships are an answer to some of the problems in education, setting a target of 3 million by 2020. But it has also recognised that they need a little work.
The apprenticeship reforms mean employers are finally able to give their input – ensuring that we are training young people to be fit for industry. We believe the largest opportunity within the new vision for apprenticeships rests with the flexibility offered through "standards" rather than "frameworks".
We see the majority of our learners accessing e-learning outside of usual office hours and on a multitude of devices. The new standards will mean that we have more influence over what we teach, as long as the relevant standards are met. All of this, however, must be seen in light of what can only be described as the fourth (robotic) industrial revolution. Some 35 per cent of current job roles within the UK are expected to disappear over the next 20 years and the skillsets that currently stand us in good stead need to be reimagined.
What can apprenticeships offer?
Top-quality apprenticeships are already transforming the lives of young people up and down the country. At Central YMCA, through our YMCA Training arm, we deliver apprenticeships to help young people realise their potential and get a foothold on to their chosen career ladder.
Those who successfully complete their apprenticeship will walk away with an industry-recognised qualification and the knowledge and experience to hit the ground running. And there’s always the option to study towards higher national diplomas as well as foundation and honours degrees for those wanting to explore their education further.
Apprenticeships are also a career passport to go into virtually any field – the vast majority of industries offer apprenticeships in some form. So, whether healthcare, business, engineering, social media marketing or banking is your bag – there’s a scheme out there for just about everyone.
And then, of course, there’s the financial hit – the average debt graduates can look forward to upon leaving university is surging upwards towards £40,000 and beyond. This is all against a backdrop of rising rents, housing shortages and a jobs market saturated with degree-holders. Apprenticeships bridge the gap between working and learning – marrying the two to enable learning on the job whilst earning a salary. They give often disadvantaged young people a head-start; helping them build up experience whilst scaling up the career and salary ladder, ahead of their university graduate counterparts.
The benefits of apprenticeships
In order for young people to consider apprenticeships, they need be made fully aware of their specific advantages. Therefore, it behoves education professionals to promote these programmes to school leavers. But how?
In order to effectively do so, education professionals need to fully appreciate their viability as an attractive alternative to university – by first understanding their multiplicity of benefits. Once this is established, it’s important to identify those students most suited to an apprenticeship and then appraise them fully of their options. All schools and colleges must have a career service in place that actively promotes apprenticeships as a desirable pathway for school leavers – on par with university, and not as a last resort.
University isn’t for everyone, and it’s wrong to assume that it is by taking a one-size-fits-all approach. We should instead proactively promote the benefits of apprenticeships – particularly to those students from lower-income backgrounds. Perceptions of apprenticeships are changing but education professionals need to be doing more to ensure students are being given the opportunity to reach their full potential.
Rosi Prescott is chief executive at the health, wellbeing and education charity Central YMCA