Many businesses and education providers still feel that university is the best option for young people setting out in the world of work. This might explain why more people than ever applied to university in 2016, with UCAS admissions services showing that nearly half a million places have been offered (up by three per cent on last year). 

To many, university might seem like the best and most obvious route into employment – but each year many people apply almost on autopilot without considering all their options. Worries of not living up to family expectations, feeling like university is the only route to a good job and a lack of information on other options, like apprenticeships, play a huge part in deterring people from considering alternative routes.

Whilst it is undeniably good news that so many young people want to go to university, there is evidence that students are struggling once they get there. A recent survey published in the Telegraph found that 28 per cent of 1,200 first-year students had either dropped out following the Christmas break or were seriously thinking about it.

This doesn’t mean they have ‘failed’ at their studies – just that university might not be right for them, for whatever reason that might be. In fact, changing direction can offer up a whole host of new career opportunities. One of the apprentices at Barclays, Ross Farquhar, is the perfect example of a young person who headed straight to university after completing his A-levels only to find that it wasn’t taking him in the right direction.

Ross began a degree studying Sport and Exercise Science in 2010, but after realising it wasn’t the right learning environment for him and that his career goals had changed, he decided to leave after passing his first year. This led him to join Barclays as a cashier, where he found out about the Relationship Management Apprenticeship scheme. He’s currently studying for a Level 6 Associate Chartered Banker Certificate, meaning he is gaining invaluable office experience alongside a qualification – and all without incurring student debt.

Ross is very glad he chose to take on an apprenticeship: “Whilst university can be excellent for some people, it definitely wasn’t right for me. As an apprentice, I’m able to gain work experience and prepare myself for the world of work and earn a good salary, all whilst studying for a qualification.”

An apprenticeship helps those with little or no experience become ready for work and is designed to build confidence, experience and skills. It is not just an interim assignment; at Barclays, we offer a permanent role and career pathway across a wide range of sectors, from banking and finance to HR and technology. Crucially, as well as getting practical on-the-job work experience, apprentices earn as they learn.

University applicants are facing a challenging and unpredictable financial landscape with maintenance grants being abolished and rising tuition fees putting university degrees out of reach for many. This is likely to lead to more and more people waking up to the fact that it is possible to gain skills and prepare yourself for the world of work without taking on debt.

It can be hard for school leavers to make choices that affect the course of their lives and careers, especially those that involve huge amounts of money. This just stresses the importance of good careers provision in schools, to make sure that every student has the best advice and support possible to help them make an informed decision – which may or may not involve university. However, it is also up to businesses to make it clear that they aren’t only looking for university graduates and make the mutual benefits of apprenticeships clear. Through Barclays, Ross regularly speaks to young people about his experience of being an apprentice, and agrees that giving them the information they need to make that choice is invaluable.

Looking ahead, Barclays forecasts huge levels of potential growth in apprenticeships. A new ‘Degree Apprenticeship’ was introduced in 2015 that allows apprentices to earn a full university equivalent qualification in their chosen sector without paying the ever-increasing university tuition fees. Additionally, the Apprenticeship Levy introduced by the UK government this year is set to create three million apprenticeships in England by 2020. This shows that now is the time for apprenticeships to be seen in the same light as other education choices.

Furthermore, big businesses are waking up to the benefits that employing apprentices bring, allowing them the opportunity to skill up workers to meet the specific needs of their company. Companies that register and pay the government Levy when it is introduced next year will be able to access funding, so many larger companies may well choose to take on apprentices or expand existing programmes. This, in turn, could well impact the number of graduate schemes on offer as employers turn their attention to apprentices. Growing and supporting British apprentices remains a focus for Robert Halfon, Minister for Skills and Apprenticeships, speaking at Skills Show at the Birmingham NEC last week: “[this] is the best of Britain in terms of skills and apprenticeships – and this what our country is going to become.”

 I very much believe that apprenticeships are a genuine alternative to university that should be considered a viable and valuable career path. Today, apprenticeships are available in a huge range of sectors and levels and are open to everyone, regardless of age, social background or qualifications and are fast becoming one of the most worthwhile career paths allowing people to earn and learn at the same time. This doesn’t mean they will be the best option for everyone – but then again, neither is university. What we have to ensure is that schools and businesses are giving our young people the support and help they need to take the next step into the world of work.  

Mike Thompson, Head of Apprenticeships at Barclays

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