Maybe it’s because it’s New Year and the traditional time for existential angst. Maybe it’s because education and skills policy are arguably in a greater state of flux than at any time since the earlier 1990’s. Or maybe it’s because of the ever increasing costs associated with tertiary education coupled with diminishing certainty of its benefits. But whatever the reason, questions about the purpose of higher education abound. “What is a university education and where is it going?” was discussed by the great and the good at UCL’s IOE last week (11 Jan), and we will be asking the same fundamental questions at a panel discussion at my own institution in a few weeks’ time. “You are thinking about not going to university – congratulations! You have just proved that you can think differently” states the notgoingtouni.co.uk website, as quiet-voiced elders in careers departments and family homes everywhere look on aghast.

Let’s look at the stats for a moment. A recent poll from consumer organisation Which? found that 91% of young people’s first choice for post-school education remains a university degree. It also found that just 36% of 16 to 24 year olds felt that they knew enough about apprenticeships, compared with a colossal 94% who felt that they had a good understanding of undergraduate degrees. And what of the middle way? It seems that degree apprenticeships, that mix academia with practical on-the-job learning, remain a dark wood, as the Chartered Institute for Management found recently, with only 20% of parents aware of this route. And that against a background of almost half a million young people now undertaking some form of apprenticeship, with over 75 degree apprenticeship courses being offered in UK institutions, including alternative providers like mine as well as FE Colleges and universities. If the Government’s ambition to create 200,000 new apprenticeships by 2020 is to be met, things have to change.

But how? Yes all of us in the sector could be more proactive in reaching out to schools and colleges about the ‘non-traditional’ routes open to students. I know at Pearson College we have a busy external relations programme, with 172 school visits last year and 45 already penciled in for 2018, but I am sure there is more we could do. Yes more profile could be given to non-traditional routes at UCAS fairs – perhaps there could even be alternative fairs within fairs? - since with the best will in the world such options tend to disappear amid the sheer weight of numbers of traditional institutions offering traditional pathways in traditional university sports halls. Yes employers could have a greater presence in this process (as our research indicates they are overwhelmingly willing to do), lending their blue-chip brands to counterbalance the reassuringly expensive allure of the Russell Group.

But since it’s the season for existential angst, perhaps some more fundamental questions need to be asked. After all, whilst it isn’t possible to please all of the people all of the time, it ought to be possible to please at least some of them some of the time. And that doesn’t seem to be happening at the moment. According to the Student Academic Experience Survey published by the Higher Education Policy Institute and the Higher Education Academy last June, just 35% of students across the UK thought university was "good" or "very good" value for money, compared with 53% five years ago. For employers, the 2017 Pearson-CBI Education and Skills Survey found that three quarters (75%) of businesses expect to increase the number of high-skilled roles over the coming years, but 61% fear that there will be a lack of sufficiently skilled people to fill them. If the Saatchis told us Britain wasn’t working in 1979, study doesn’t seem to be working in 2017.

So what should young people do after they’ve finished school? Perhaps the key is studying whilst working, with a degree apprenticeship providing the best of both worlds and the best preparation for the world of work. But only if that’s the door they want to open. Maybe they just want to learn more about their chosen subject with a view to advancing knowledge in this area, in which case a traditional degree may well be the way forward. Maybe they want the traditional student experience, in which case a traditional university would be the obvious destination. Maybe they want a gap year to decide which way to go, equipped with their actual grades which will tell them where they can go. Maybe they want to finish their course in two years, minimising the opportunity and other associated costs of studying a degree. Maybe they want to take three or more years, interning in the summers or maybe even having some R ‘n’ R before the world of work becomes genuinely inescapable. Maybe, heaven forbid, they want to finish their education at level three – an option which can feel all the more intimidating with the pervasive HR practice of demanding degree level qualifications for non-degree jobs.

The main priority must surely be that young people make a positive choice about their futures, rather than drifting onto a costly conveyor belt with no clear destination. And this involves encouraging them to ask the question, “Why do I want to go to university?” in the first place, since if they know what they want out of the experience they are far more likely to get it. Provided, of course, they are given the impartial, disinterested guidance they need to choose the right option for them. I borrowed the ‘quiet-voiced elders’ phrase from T.S. Eliot’s Four Quartets, in which he asked, “Had they deceived us or deceived themselves, the quiet-voiced elders, bequeathing us merely a receipt for deceit? … the wisdom only the knowledge of dead secrets useless in the darkness into which they peered or from which they turned their eyes”. We must all do our best to try to illuminate that darkness, to reveal the different doors young people may open, leading into their own, individual, rose gardens. 

Ben Hughes is Vice Principal (Industry Engagement) at Pearson College London, the first higher education institution in the UK to be founded by a FTSE 100 company – Pearson Plc.

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