The government has announced a review of university costs in England. Their call for better value for students in England, after prime minister Theresa May admitted (19 February 2018) that “we face one of the most expensive systems of university tuition in the world”, has simply served to highlight how right so many young people in the UK have been to think carefully before being encouraged by many schools to head for university after finishing their sixth form studies.
Jon Graham, chief executive of leading work-based training company JTL, a charity which provides more apprenticeships in the building services engineering sector than any other training provider in England and Wales, says the independent review announced by the government is well overdue. However, it will not change anything overnight and we will continue to see young people seriously consider their options, and in many cases, seek an alternative career path than that offered by higher education: “We accept, of course, that for many young people going to university is the right choice for them and that will continue. But for others, as we know from speaking to them, university is just a convenient option, whether or not they know what they want to do with their lives and sadly often simply means being able to put off thinking about their futures for another three or four years. Yet many young people today are more ‘savvy’ than maybe ten years ago and do consider their future careers far more carefully. The issue of student debt is a very real one for learners and increasingly its one that many young people want to mitigate if they can,” he says. “Few people are surprised that we are seeing the maximum annual fee level of £9,250 being charged for pretty much every course available at universities across England, irrespective of the quality of the teaching, the success record of the course or the nature of the subject being studied. It was naïve to believe that universities would charge less and try to be competitive. Did we really expect anything else to happen? This approach has simply added to the attraction for many “to earn while they learn”, seeking a high quality apprenticeship and gaining vital work skills while gaining a qualifications.”
The statement by the prime minister included an announcement support for vocational training and apprenticeships in post-18 education will also be considered by the independent review. She also warned that the route into further technical and vocational training is “hard to navigate”, suggesting that the standards across the sector are too varied and the funding is patchy.
“We’re pleased that the government has recognised the need to improve the levels of information, advice and guidance to young people regarding the option of taking a technical route after leaving the sixth form,” continues Jon Graham. “We’ve heard people in Government saying the right things for a while but have not seen much evidence of action to truly raise the standing and awareness of the vocational career route, despite the investment made in apprenticeships. It’s time, in our view, to ensure apprenticeships are seen as a really valuable alternative to university rather than a ‘poor relation’. We are seeing apprentices achieving their qualifications, and then moving into more advanced learning options, in the main with the help of their employers, progressing to higher qualifications and degrees on the back of the foundation that their apprenticeship has given them.
The Institute of Fiscal Studies reports students in England face more than £5,000 in interest charges alone before they have even left university, contributing to average graduate debt of more than £50,000 – a figure that seems to rise year on year. There is no suggestion from ministers that the review will consider scrapping or radically reducing fees or replacing the system with a graduate tax, so the issues of student debt seem set to continue whatever the outcome of the review. Labour have again announced they will scrap tuition fees for higher education and provide free lifelong education in further education colleges.
“The apprenticeship option is an increasingly valuable one for both young people and employers,” says Jon Graham. “For young people there is the chance to qualify into a trade or profession with no student debt. For employers, there is the opportunity to recruit bright, motivated young people who have made a conscious decision to take this pathway rather than study for a degree.
“Employers across the country have seen the benefits of the apprenticeship scheme in attracting new blood to their businesses. And the country needs to ensure that the skills gaps that already exist, and may get worse with the uncertainties of Brexit, can be filled with skilled and well trained young people. Let’s hope government really does ‘walk the talk.’”