As a former Primary School Governor of 18 years standing, I’ve always had an interest in children’s education; but I first started to become more heavily involved in youth education and employment when, in 2012 and after 23 years in professional football, I became Head of Marketing and PR at MiddletonMurray – at that time a prominent recruitment and apprenticeship training consultancy.
I was therefore interested to read in today’s Times that a survey by YouGov for The Times Education Commission found that more people now support apprenticeships than university degrees as the best start in life. The survey found that 45 per cent of people believed apprenticeships offered the best preparation, with only 4 per cent saying the same about degrees. A further 44 per cent viewed both equally.
The Times article also quoted Sir Roger Carr, the Chairman of BAE systems, one of the biggest apprenticeship providers, who said that ‘more students were quitting university for apprenticeships.’ Sir Roger also contended that for a long period it was believed not going to university to study an academic subject was looked upon as ‘getting a second-grade education,’ with the result that ‘apprenticeships were socially downgraded’. This view was supported by Michelle Donelan, the universities minister who told the education select committee that she believes ‘Britain has had an ‘’obsession’’ with all pupils going to university’ and that it should now be ‘based much more on the individual.’
This debate on the merits of doing an apprenticeship as opposed to going to university is not new as it came up regularly during my five years at MiddletonMurray and, at that time, I was regularly asked to write articles on this subject for industry platforms such as the TUC’s UnionLearn website.
Indeed, today’s article in The Times highlighted just how attitudes constantly do change with regards to education. Thinking back to ‘my day’, there certainly wasn’t the pressure on my generation to go to university – the closest I ever came to academic pressure was my family really wanted me to go to the local grammar school because, as I kept being told throughout my last years at primary school, ‘your cousin Robert is doing so well there’. Rightly or wrongly, I do remember feeling just a little pressure on me not to let my family down when I went for my interview at Shooters Hill Grammar School but, fortunately, I passed and was successful in winning a place ‘at my cousin Robert’s school’!
I had a great education at Shooters Hill but again, there was no pressure on me to continue my studying at university as ‘good’ jobs in the 1970’s were not exactly hard to come by if you had done well in your ‘O’ and ‘A’ Levels. That was certainly the case with me as I came straight out of school and into Midland Bank (which later became HSBC). However, just a few years after I left school the emphasis changed, and it became almost essential to go to university if you wanted to even have a chance of going into a career such as Banking.
The findings by the Times Education Commission and the remarks made by Sir Roger Carr and Michelle Donelan MP show that the ‘tide is turning’ yet again, with less importance being placed on the need to go to university.
As I said, I never went to university myself, but I have no doubt that it can be a fantastic experience. However, having a degree is no longer a guarantee of securing a highly paid job. A recent study by the Institute of Student Employers (ISE) found that competition for graduate jobs reached a record high in 2021 with the average employer receiving 91 applications for each graduate role they advertised. Clearly, competition is fierce; and when you think that the average student debt upon leaving university in 2020 was £45,000, you can see why 45 per cent of participants in The Times survey considered apprenticeships as a very real alternative to university.
Of course, apprenticeships have moved on from just being associated with trades such as plumbing, building and electrics and, thankfully, in my old industry – professional football – it certainly no longer means young footballers effectively becoming the unofficial cleaners at the football club! Now increasingly young people are realising the value of apprenticeships, with one of the most compelling reasons to go that route being you have the chance to earn an income whilst learning.
So, if you’re a young person who is considering your options with regard to your adult education, but your sole reason for going to university is your personal equivalent of because ‘your cousin Robert did’, and you’re really not sure it’s for you; then to paraphrase the universities minister Michelle Donelan MP, adopt an individual approach and consider doing an apprenticeship.
Steve Sutherland was Head of Marketing and PR for MiddletonMurray, an award-winning recruitment and training consultancy, from 2012 to 2017.