Conor Holohan argues that apprenticeship training is the best way to plug our growing skills gap
Nearly 2.3 million students studied in UK universities in 2015-16. The average student debt is £44,000 – the highest in the English speaking world, according to the Sutton Trust.
University is incredibly expensive. The latest ONS figures show that 46% of new graduates will not find a job which requires applicants to have a degree. For this reason, we in the UK must be weary of the idea that more people in university is, in itself, a good thing. Though the debt is lower in Wales, as Welsh students currently have two-thirds of their tuition fees subsidised by the Welsh Government, an independent review into higher education funding found that this subsidy is unsustainable and should be replaced by a loan system in the coming years, and the Welsh Government are already putting this into effect.
For some, university can be the logical next step from college to their chosen career. For students who know from the age of 15 that they want to study medicine and go on to become a doctor, or to study journalism and enter the world of media, university is a shining opportunity. Though it is expensive, students in the UK are privileged to be able to loan the costs from the taxpayer, and for a young person confident in their career path, can be the perfect route to take.
But many 17-year-olds are not confident about what career they want to pursue when the time comes to apply to university. Around this time, schools are routinely visited by representatives from universities who hold talks that are made compulsory, as are the trips to university open days.
As the deadline for applications nears, many aimless students panic, and begin to feel left out and left behind. Their friends are writing personal statements, talking about the different towns they will set off to, while teachers and parents reinforce this expectation. So they apply.
Universities are portrayed as having the same attractions as a holiday camp: the social life is at the front and centre of every university prospectus, the freedom from parents beckoning young adults as they embrace their growing independence. It’s time for this to stop. It’s time for us to portray university as what it actually is: a serious career investment, which takes consideration and dedication, not a three-year social gathering.
The blind drive towards more university places, for these students, can lead many people leaving university with a degree in a subject they don’t want a career in, or unable to get a career with the subject they got their degree in, with little to show for it other than a mountain of debt.
Indeed, the over-saturation of universities has devalued degrees, but has also made them a must-have in the eyes of parents and ambitious students. The more money on offer to universities, the more degrees will be offered, and those places need filling and will always be filled on clearing day.
We must make more effort to sell to college students the benefits of earning while you learn. It currently takes gumption for a student who finds themselves in a friendship circle of people all heading to university to decide that earning and learning would be better for them. They will not have the long summer and relaxed schedule that university students have, but they will have a wage, and when they finish their apprenticeship there will almost certainly be a job waiting for them, rather than the uncertainty and debt that would face that person had they taken the university route.
The Diamond Review into higher education funding and student finance in Wales preached the benefits of part-time study, which would allow students to earn money and skills in the workplace, while also bettering their career prospects in university. Another possibility is to open up apprenticeships in more ‘white-collar’ occupational areas, such as PR, to break up the hierarchical perception that apprenticeships lead to exclusively manual forms of employment.
One thing is clear: apprenticeship training is the best way to plug our growing skills gap, and we need to incentivise employers to offer more apprenticeships that can lead to employment. Additionally, we must do better to convey the benefits of earning while learning for those who are less sure of their career goals, rather than allowing them to be plunged into debt because of peer and parental pressure.
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