The vocational route is becoming increasingly beneficial for young people, so why are more heading to university?

For decades, the further education sector has considered how to develop the reputation of the vocational route (such as apprenticeships and jobs) so they are perceived as equal in respectability to the academic route (university). Although the vocational route is becoming all the more popular as an alternative to a higher education degree, there are many misconceptions surrounding apprenticeships. Research shows that 11% of young people believe apprenticeships have a bad reputation for being low skilled, and 53% said they had never considered one1.

This is despite highly-regarded industries, such as banking, engineering and legal, currently offering young people the chance to undertake a paid, full-time career immediately after they leave school or college. Such opportunities seem to be a reflection of how the economic climate is growing in favour of those who pursue work experience over university qualifications, as less than a third of job roles are expected to be graduate positions by 20222. Although these offers are increasing, research by City and Guilds shows that over two-thirds of young people are planning on going to university, with a third of those not knowing what they will study3. So why do we, as a society, place so much importance on the prestige of a degree rather than learning on-the-job experience, even if the economic climate suggests otherwise?

University does come with many benefits, which is not just about employability, including: in-depth study of an academic subject; the opportunity to pursue a career in research; higher graduate salaries in certain industries; learning to become independent; as well as cultural and social familiarities. The academic route does give young people a different set of experiences for their progression, but this does not necessarily make it superior. A key objective of apprenticeships and initial employment is to shape young people into skilled workers for the economy and their respective industry. On the other hand, a higher education degree can provide students with a set of strong transferable skills for a range of careers, whilst also maintaining an established knowledge of their subject.

Additionally, the social and cultural value applied to formal education does not seem to be as applicable to vocational routes. But this is something the government has been working to change during the last few years. There have been huge strides in reforming apprenticeship programmes since 2006, when the Leitch Review was created to boost apprenticeships to 500,000 a year, which the Government has now increased to 3 million by the end of this year. Since then, there have been drastic funding changes, including a £25 million Higher Apprenticeship Fund in 2011, and new minimum standards which mean low-level courses cannot be labelled as an apprenticeship.

As a result, a variation of qualification counterparts has been made available, and so people can now complete apprenticeships equivalent to 5 GCSE’s all the way up to a degree. Apprenticeships have become all the more respectable as they are accessible to people of a variety of ages and skills, which can give unprecedented opportunities to those who wish to undertake them. This change in standard and opportunity can most clearly be seen in employers’ views as in 2014, 82% of those surveyed said they were satisfied with the apprenticeship programme, but that figure has since increased to 90%4. In fact, the experience employees gain from completing apprenticeships is held in high regard by many businesses, some even more so than degrees. Those who opt to study for a level 5 higher apprenticeship will earn an average of £1.5million during the course of their career, almost £52,000 more than graduates from non-elite universities5.            

That being said, both methods of study are sought after by employers. University is valued for the transferable skills and in-depth knowledge it provides, while apprenticeships are respected for their practical nature and real-life work experience opportunities. An increasing number of organisations are offering apprenticeship schemes as they begin to view this method of training as a viable alternative to a university degree. Nonetheless, educated graduates are in high demand and this trend is set to continue in the foreseeable future.

The best route is generally dependent on the person and their aspirations: does their desired career require a university degree? Does that person enjoy studying and research or are they more practical and hands-on? There is no right or wrong decision and so it is important that colleges make students aware that both options are as viable as each other, enforcing the fact that a university degree may not be suited to every student despite the prestigious weight it holds.


1Investors in People: What do young people really think about apprenticeships

2The Guardian: What is better for job prospects: university of apprenticeships?

3City and Guilds: Great Expectations – Teenagers’ career aspirations versus the reality of the UK jobs market

4The Open University: The changing face of apprenticeships

5Prospects Should I go to university or do an apprenticeship?

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