Bexley big debate: university vs apprenticeships

13:47 23 August 2012

Desmond Deehan

Desmond Deehan


Thousands of youngsters celebrated their A-level results last Thursday, which for many will mean the prospect of heading off to university next month.

Danny RidgewayDanny Ridgeway

Our borough boasts some excellent schools, including Bexley Grammar School which saw A* to C pass rates of 87.5 per cent in last summer’s A-levels.

But the latest figures from the Higher Education Statistics Agency show 20,000 people who graduated last summer were unemployed six months later. And more than 10,000 had taken low paid jobs as cleaners, bar staff and street sweepers.

Politicians continue to wrangle over perceived results inflation - although this year saw the first drop the number of A-levels awarded an A or A* grade for the first time in more than 20 years.

Experts say the average graduate will rack up debt of £40,000 completing a degree in the UK system with tuition fees and interest.

But the Institute for Public Policy Research predicts a graduate will earn between £79,500 and £86,000 more over their working lifetime than a non-graduate. As thousands of teenagers reflect on their life-changing decisions, we ask is university really necessary to get the best jobs or are there other options?

Desmond Deehan, head teacher of Townley Grammar School

While every individual must choose the path most appropriate to their ability and aspirations, for those able to do so university is the natural choice.

The case for university study is convincing and that is why admissions to courses have increased by around 9 per cent.

Close to 2.5m people have enrolled in the United Kingdom’s 165 universities. Significantly the greatest increase has been in young women attending university with 51 per cent in 2008/9 compared to one in five 20 years ago.

So why is university so appealing especially when it is increasingly expensive? It might be because it is a great investment for the individual.

For a start 89.9 per cent of graduates go onto employment or further study. On average, graduates tend to earn substantially more than people with A levels who did not go to university.

Over a working lifetime, the difference is something like £100,000 before tax. If you consider the ever lengthening retirement age the time at university makes sense since you will have a long working life still ahead of you.

However, it is not purely the financial benefits that appeal. University lets you experience a rich cultural and social scene, meeting a variety of people from different backgrounds while studying something that genuinely interests you.

There are also the private non-market benefits for individuals of having degrees, including better personal health and improved development in their children.

Finally there are the benefits to society. Britain’s economy needs skilled graduates to innovate, grow and secure the recovery - developing analytical and critical thinkers who have the ability to question and reflect. That is what has made the British university system the envy of the world.

Danny Ridgeway, Bexley College principal

The choice of whether to go to university or to take an alternative training and development route has become more stark because of the rise in university tuition fees.

With rising unemployment more youngsters and their parents are wondering whether it is worth going to university and graduating with large debts.

However, it is true that universities have always offered vocational degrees – Medicine, Law or Accounting are all vocational training.

Bexley College offers vocational degrees in subjects like Built Environment, Computing and Business that lay the right foundations for the workplace as they focus on the skills needed by employers and develop work based knowledge.

Some of these degrees are part-time and are aimed at people working in the field that they are studying. So you don’t have to go to university to study for a degree, you can do a degree at a college of further education.

There are alternative routes to develop your skills and career options apart from taking a degree. Apprenticeships offer the option to work with on-the-job and college based training.

Traditionally these apprenticeships have been for careers in industries like construction, engineering or hair and beauty. But more and more employers see the benefit of training young people to develop the personal qualities and employability skills that they need from their staff.

It allows employers the opportunity to assess the skills that have been developed in the workplace.

For youngsters an apprenticeship offers the chance to earn while you learn, to get qualifications without ending up with a student loan debt. Some of these apprentices then move on to study a degree whether part-time or full-time to further their career options.

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