Earlier this year we learned that the number of people on apprenticeships and traineeships in England had risen again to more than 500,000. The great fanfare that greeted this announcement was certainly warranted, because the figures highlight the fact that vocational qualifications are no longer considered a second-class route to a degree. Yet, with the number of undergraduates totalling 1.8 million, there is still a long way to go before there is parity between these two groups.
But it's worth noting that it could be a lot worse. Not too long ago the consensus was that as many young people as possible should go to university. Back then the path to a well-paid and fulfilling career was clearly mapped out: study A-levels, then a degree and then get a job. The growing trend of professions demanding a degree for even entry-level roles meant that the best route to a career was going to university. Some young people found themselves effectively herded into higher education without sufficient consideration as to whether this was the right option for them.
This way of thinking has now evaporated. Some of the young people who completed degrees on the assumption that this would guarantee a stellar career have found evidence to the contrary in the job market. The latest statistics on graduate performance show that almost half (47 per cent) are in roles that don't require a degree. This has led some graduates to question if their degree was worthwhile, particularly when they encounter former apprentices who earn as much (if not more) than them and don't have to make student loan repayments.
Although we don't fixate on universities and degrees as we once did, the gap between those in further and higher education is still significant enough to require consideration.
Part of the problem is that, despite a growing awareness of the benefits of apprenticeships, there remains a stubborn misperception about them being for people who aren't "smart enough" to do a degree. Another common belief is that apprenticeships do not provide access to rewarding and well-paid careers in professions such as accounting and finance. This is false, as the many members of the Association of Accounting Technicians (AAT) who qualified with apprenticeships rather than degrees can confirm.
Twists and turns
Changing parental attitudes is key to breaking this false impression. In study after study, parents rank as the main influence on young people's educational attainment and career paths. No one can blame a parent for promoting the university route when it was the be-all and end-all as they were growing up. Raising awareness of all the options, including degrees, is therefore crucial.
After parents, teachers are the next most important influence. In recent AAT research, 10 per cent of young people said that teachers had influenced their career path, second only to parents at 40 per cent. Thus education professionals can play an important role in challenging misinformation about vocational qualifications.
An AAT survey of 14- to 19-year-olds found that many felt they had not been properly informed about the options available to them. Around 70 per cent said they would like, or would have liked, guidance from teachers on alternative paths such as apprenticeships, and 84 per cent said they would like, or would have liked, more advice from their school or college on their future options.
Just like parents, some teachers have a traditional view of education that favours the university route. This can mean that they limit the potential of their students by proselytising one option when there are many. However, we know that having a degree is no longer a guarantee of success. This is unlikely to change, despite the improving economy. Employers are resolute: what is important is hiring skilled professionals who are capable of performing the job in question. For most positions, having a degree is not a requisite for this.
So what should schools and teachers do? Improving careers advice is vital. Young people can only make informed choices if they are given the best possible guidance; engaging with employers and others will help to make this happen. Schools also need to expand their definitions of success. Too often it is attached to roles that are office-based, where an individual suits up in a white-collar role instead of boots up in a blue-collar job. The irony is that some blue-collar workers out-earn their white-collar counterparts and then go on to senior management positions with significant influence and earning power.
To counter this, schools could highlight the stories of people who have done well with a range of qualifications. Career talks should feature not only ex-pupils who went on to top universities but also those who succeeded through studying vocational qualifications.
Highlighting and remarking on the achievements of people who have taken a variety of routes will underline the equality of both the further and higher education paths, challenging and hopefully changing the status quo. When we achieve the latter, we will really have a reason to give ourselves a pat on the back.
Mark Farrar is chief executive of the Association of Accounting Technicians, the vocational accounting and finance qualifications and membership body