By Maddy Burt
The government are right to scrap previous targets of 50% of young people going to university whilst increasing investment into apprenticeships, but new targets for university education should follow.
The commitment set by Tony Blair in 1999 of 50% of young people entering higher education, was pivotal at the time as part of a commitment to encouraging students from all backgrounds to pursue higher education. Whilst social mobility achieved through higher education remains important, we should not forget the benefits of the practical education many apprenticeships offer.
New funding announced by Rishi Sunak offering employers £2,000 for taking on a new 18-24 year-old apprentice between August and January, is a good step in opening up the availability of apprenticeships. Currently, only 15% of businesses offer apprenticeships, compared to much higher figures of 24% and 30% in Germany and Australia respectively.
Crucially, apprenticeships should not be seen as a ‘lesser’ path to take post-school compared with going to university. The government should lead in working to dismantle this mindset. University study, alongside a mix of social life and student debt, should not be sold as the only fulfilling future, nor the one that always offers the best prospects.
For many students, A levels are restrictive enough, hence the appropriate rise in students taking BTEC qualifications. Continuing a form of education that involves learning in lecture theatres and small classes, alongside independent study, is certainly suitable for some. However, it should not be presented as the more desirable path all should pursue before falling back on an apprenticeship, or another form of work, as a second option.
After all, in terms of practical experience that offers great job prospects at the end, many apprenticeships are second to none. At BT, where there has been a rise in apprenticeships following the 2017 Apprenticeship Levy (which encourages all big businesses to fund apprenticeship training), 85% of apprentices are retained to continue to work with the company. Many of these receive quick promotions. The apprentices are trained to exactly what the company is looking for and have spent years earning instead of pilling on student debt.
Possessing the commitment and focus to seek out and complete a full-time apprenticeship from the age of eighteen demonstrates ambition and drive, qualities that are not always instilled during a university education. In the current climate, encouraging and funding education is key for ensuring there are sufficient vocational workers, whilst allowing school leavers choice over a variety of strong paths for their futures.
Through committing funding for schemes and rewards for companies that take on apprentices, the government has taken a significant step in acknowledging the importance of apprenticeships. The momentum should certainly not stop here.
Such investment encouraging businesses to take on apprentices should be further extended in order to actively supporting apprentices who, despite earning a moderate income, have to funnel much of this towards the cost of living, whereas student loan repayment is left untouched for years. Apprenticeships should be accessible for all, in the same way university education should be, with a range of funding available for different needs.
Further, whilst scrapping the aim for 50% of school leavers to go to university allows for a shift towards apprenticeships for many, a goal should continue to be equal opportunities and access to universities for all. New goals should focus around state school attendance at top universities, which still remain disproportionately low.
Photograph: Transport For London Press Images via Flickr