Big Debate: Should we encourage more young people into vocational qualifications or apprenticeships?

University graduation. Picture: Chris Ison/PA Images

University graduation. Picture: Chris Ison/PA Images - Credit: PA Wire/PA Images

This week’s Big Debate is about whether it’s time to start encouraging more young people to choose alternatives to university.

Monika Guin (Left) Phil Salangsang (Right)

Monika Guin (Left) Phil Salangsang (Right) - Credit: Archant

With a record number of students accepted onto university courses since A-level results day on August 13 and with the “wake-up call” last week issued by the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development following its finding that 58.8 per cent of graduates were in non-graduate jobs, we asked the University of East London’s Femi Bola and NotGoingToUni’s Spencer Mehlman: With record numbers of students going to universities, should we be doing more to encourage young people into vocational qualifications or apprenticeships?”

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Femi Bola MBE, director of employability at University of East London

“Most graduates in ‘non-graduate’ jobs,” the headlines scream. And “too many university graduates and not enough jobs”, leading us to believe that Tony Blair’s vision of 50pc of all school leavers going to university may have been misguided.

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With university fees £9,000 a year and the government soon to withdraw student maintenance grants, many may be thinking a degree is no longer worth the investment – particularly when the return on that investment is not guaranteed.

Far from there being a surplus of graduates, there is, in fact, a higher level skills shortage.

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According to figures from the last year’s national survey of graduates, six months after graduation, employment rates are up, and unemployment is down. Subjects particularly improving this year were finance, accountancy, marketing, wconomics, and IT/computing. Many of these subjects are already in shortage and according to the Association of Graduate Recruiters’ winter survey, there were more than 1,400 unfilled graduate vacancies last year.

London is a net importer of graduates, not just from around the UK but from across the globe, so competition for those “first” graduate roles can be fierce. However this does not negate a degree’s value.

Though the initial investment in degree-level study can seem high and it may take a while to secure a graduate role, research has shown graduates earn as much £100,000 more than non-graduates over the course of their career – a great return.

As applications for university hit a record high this year, would-be students still see a degree as a worthwhile pursuit.

The population is composed of more graduates, with an increased demand from employers for people with high skills. But graduates are not always where they are most needed, hence the headlines. But the degree has been the qualification of choice for higher level skills for centuries and I don’t see this changing in the near future.

Spencer Mehlman, managing director of NotGoingToUni

It is great to see so many young people looking to continue their education and gain new skills by heading off to university.

However, university is just one of the possible routes that are available to young people today.

More needs to be done to promote vocational qualifications and apprenticeships to young people, and show them that, far from being a lesser option, these routes can lead to real success too.

There seems to be a view that university is a “golden ticket” to a great career, while other routes are for those “not good enough” to make it to uni.

With recent statistics saying some 60pc of graduates end up having to take low-skilled work after college, coupled with the debts that a university education can incur, it is clear that we need to consider all of the available options.

Apprenticeships, for example, have received a lot of publicity in recent months, and rightly so, with apprentices showing a higher level of job satisfaction than their university graduate peers.

Vocational qualifications and apprenticeships offer work experience that simply cannot be taught in classrooms, making them appealing to employers too.

With increasing numbers of these courses and programmes becoming available, it is certainly worth exploring your options fully. Don’t forget you earn while you learn with an apprenticeship, so you get no debt, a qualification and hopefully a great job.

There are also other routes to gain a degree without the costs of traditional university, such as distance learning or sponsored degrees, where employers pay the fees.

University is just one of many great options, but it is a case of making sure young people and their parents are given access to all the information, so they make the right choice for themselves, their careers, and the future. So check out websites such as and explore thousands of live opportunities and watch videos of young people who chose an alternative route.

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