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Blurring the academic and vocational routes – by Jon Wakeford

  • 11 December 2015
  • By Jon Wakeford

This guest blog has been kindly contributed by Jon Wakeford, who is Group Director, Strategy and Communications at UPP, a member of the CBI London Council and a member of the Higher Education Commission. 

The distinction between the academic and vocational route in British education is commonly understood, especially by pupils and their parents. The vocational route, troublingly, is still seen as the poorer sister. Even when children are seven, 97% of their parents aspire for them to ultimately attend university.

Government is trying to change things, however.  Despite the general reduction in public expenditure, the Coalition Government prioritised more funding to kick-start a substantial increase in apprenticeship places. Now this Government is introducing an ‘apprenticeship levy’, which will raise an estimated £3 billion a year to fund a significant expansion in apprenticeships: three million by 2020.

This is a serious commitment to raising the quantity of apprenticeships.  However, alongside quantity, quality needs to be protected and we need to create a serious demand. Apprenticeships have to appeal to talented young people as a viable alternative to a degree.

In research published by UPP on Wednesday, which included polling of 1,105 future and current university students, we investigated their reasons for opting to do a degree rather than an apprenticeship. Only a quarter of future and current university students had actually considered doing an apprenticeship before applying to do a degree. In contrast, over half of those surveyed had considered doing paid work.

Why was a degree more attractive?  The biggest reason for choosing a degree – reported by six in ten future and current university students – was that ‘university offers better long-term salary prospects’. These students are not wrong. The earnings premium from attending university is significant: on average, it is nearly £200,000 over a lifetime. But 58% of those surveyed – the second most common response – also reported that they chose a degree because they ‘want the university experience’.

These two features of university – a good salary upon graduation and a good student experience – could help policymakers make apprenticeships much more attractive. Indeed, we asked future and current university students what would make them more likely to choose an apprenticeship. The most common response (72%) was ‘gaining a degree qualification as well as paid work experience under an apprenticeship scheme’.

This is why the Government’s push to increase the quantity, quality and range of Degree Apprenticeships – which combine university and apprenticeship life – is so welcome. But we could go even further. Our report suggests three new ideas to combine vocational and academic pathways.

First, further education and higher education institutions should work together to enable an expansion in vocational foundation courses. These provide students with a route into degree programmes for which their A-Levels have not qualified them. They give people a flexible way of experiencing university life prior to deciding a vocational or academic route at the end.

Second, universities should seek to provide modular vocational courses that are more suitable for small and medium-sized enterprises. Currently, the vocational courses on offer are skewed towards the priorities of larger businesses. Under our proposal, several universities could come together to each offer one or two modules towards a single vocational qualification. Employers would then be able to select from a much wider range of generic modules, available at a range of institutions but accredited together, in order to provide their employees with a tailored training opportunity.

Finally, we would advocate the introduction of lifelong learning accounts for people to fund any type of higher education course throughout their working lives, similar to that suggested recently by the think tank Bright Blue. The advantage of this approach is that it would introduce far greater flexibility into the higher education funding framework and it therefore holds the potential to ensure universities can provide viable alternative approaches to higher and further education.

The truth, of course, is that the divide between the academic and vocational pathways is exaggerated. Many top degrees, such as Law or Medicine, have strong vocational elements. But we can and should do more to break down the divide. After all, if Britain is to win ‘the global race’, we need people with the skills to thrive in the labour market. Vocational training, especially at Level 3 and above, offers that – as the Social Market Foundation has recently shown.

Young people clearly crave the student experience and want good employment outcomes. More imaginative course design and funding can ensure people can combine university with working life, and the academic with the vocational.

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