Back in July, the Prime Minister evoked in a speech the importance of practical and vocational education to “transform people’s lives”. But can the Government walk the walk?
The UK has long rested on the laurels of its golden triangle universities of Oxford-London-Cambridge, and this year, record numbers of students have chosen to attend universities across the country. Compared to last year, close to ten per cent more students have secured places in higher education institutions.
One can easily understand how the pandemic has contributed to the increase. University degrees provide students with a sense of comfort, a safety net that is very much needed during these uncertain times.
While it is in many ways laudable to see so many young adults eager to embark on academic journeys, we must ensure that we are equally encouraging of those who choose the route of practical training. As more young people choose to attend university, fewer are likely to consider vocational training as an equally rewarding option.
The stigma surrounding vocational training sadly pre-existed the pandemic, but it is likely to be exacerbated by the heightened sense of insecurity amongst young people caused by their disrupted educations.
There continues to be a strong divide between the North of England and London, with a 26 per cent increase of London pupils attending universities (compared with 2012’s numbers), while numbers of pupils attending university from deprived areas such as the North East have fallen. This sharp distinction tells us that more advantaged young people in this country still see academia as the only viable option for advancement. This is not necessarily a sustainable or desirable state of affairs.
In response to the increase in applications, the Russell Group of universities have been sending more contextual offers to pupils attending poorly performing schools in deprived areas, lowering top universities’ entry requirements to recognise the difficulties experienced by some. However, what we also need is the promotion of alternative qualifications for all pupils.
The Higher National Diploma, for example, offers work-oriented two-year degrees, in which students learn professional skills that are easily transferable. As of today, and despite the diploma being recognised as a successful route to many high-tech industries, less than ten per cent young adults hold the qualification.
In comparison, some of our European neighbours achieve higher employment rates with fewer employees coming from academia. In Germany for example, more than 20 per cent of the working population went through vocational routes. Professional training in England is still too often seen as the poor cousin of academic qualifications. Our attitude to these programmes needs to change.
The public policy think tank Pivotal conducted a survey that showed that close to 70 per cent of our sixth form pupils were unaware of many growing industries in this country that are hiring as we speak. The reason more of our young people don’t apply for jobs as vehemently as they apply for university courses is that we’ve instilled in them the dogma that success is achieved through school grades and degree classifications. This belief that has been fostered by parents, teachers and career advisors for decades.
An immediate solution would be to have in-school career advisors in as many schools as possible. Indeed, Pivotal’s survey also showed that 70 per cent of teachers find they have insufficient time to give their pupils career advice. But there is much more we could do. Professionals should be regularly invited to interact with young students, especially in the state sector, and discuss career opportunities inside and outside the traditional paths. This would require a joint effort from both government and the private sector, as well as charities, but would be beneficial to all.
Getting an Honours degree can be an exciting journey, but it is a pricey one, and for most it is a route which will take years to recover from financially. The costs saved by going down the vocational route can represent a huge advantage to young people which we should communicate to them more frankly.
At BoxWise, a non-profit social enterprise centred around boxing lessons recently launched by my foundation, we help disadvantaged young adults to upskill and embark on vocational training courses. I am a firm believer that all teenagers need tailored advice in order to make the right decisions at the right time. For some, reading philosophy will be the most suitable option. For others, it is a culinary training that will help them thrive and excel at something different from what they were taught at school.
After 18 months in the pandemic, the hospitality industry, for example, has been deserted by all kinds of potential applicants. Nonetheless, with services now opening again, restaurants and hotels are looking for young adults to start working. Because apprenticeships nurture long and stable careers, the young people training now are likely to be the leaders of the hospitality industry in future years.
Promoting vocational careers to all is also crucial for the UK’s employment figures. The country needs a technical and manual workforce as much as it needs academically minded people. The stigma attached to apprenticeships must be challenged with well-informed advice coming from professionals as well as teachers, requiring an effort from both the Government and private sector.
Everyone can find their place in the jobs market, but we must let young people know their options are broader than they have been taught to think.