Ben Rowland, Director, Government & Public Services, AVADO

The picture of the slightly awkward, smiling young person in mortar board and gown.

Mum/dad/nan/big brother/sister by the side of the graduating student, each with an even broader grin than the graduate themselves. 

It’s either on your mantelpiece, or you aspire to have one on your mantelpiece: after all, for some people this is as close as you can get in the 21st Century to a certificate to prove that you have done your job as a parent or guardian successfully.

This idea – that you have been a good parent if your child goes to university – is pervasive.  And corrosive.

For many, it is part of a broader mindset that university is “the” goal. 

Partly this is cultural, partly it reflects the huge focus over the past couple of decades on academic learning, partly it’s because today’s parents were university students themselves (a time they remember with fondness); or they weren’t but they wish they had been; and partly it’s because the ‘norm’ of going continues to go unchallenged.

One obstacle that continues is that that most schools are measured on how many of their students go to university (regardless of how good the course or university is) and many teachers assume that a ‘good’ job needs a degree (because they needed one to get their job).

When these type of metrics continue to exist it’s not hard to see why universities are promoted as the preferred route for school leavers.

This idea – that university is the best route for everyone needs to be challenged and it can be done on the three grounds of:

  1. Cost
  2. Outcomes
  3. Happiness

1. Cost

On cost, most parents who went to university themselves and are now advocating university to their offspring forget that they didn’t have to pay for it. Now it’s expensive, at £9,000 a year and plus living costs.

There has been talk about “the £100k gap” between a 21 year old graduate and a 21 year old who at 18 did an apprenticeship: the £100k is made up of the £50k it typically costs to become a university graduate and the £50k that an apprentice might typically earn in the same time period. 

That’s a big difference, so even if having a degree earns you £100,000 more over your lifetime, well, you just about get back to even. 

2. Outcomes

Which brings us to outcomes.  Parents and teachers often don’t take into account that when they went to university, less than a third of people did, meaning a degree really did get you a graduate job – it was worth it. 

Now there is a very high chance that it won’t: according to a CIPD report, nearly half of graduates are in a job that does not need a degree. 

Meanwhile, 85% of those doing an apprenticeship stay in employment when the apprenticeship finishes (and in most cases with the same employer). 

The Government is just about to start tracking wages of apprentices during and after their apprenticeship which will tell us more, but right now there is no reason to think that going to university will give your offspring an advantage over someone who goes into an apprenticeship.

3. Happiness

Last – and the arguable the most important – we come to happiness.  This is at two levels, the ‘fun factor’ level and the mental health level. 

On the ‘fun factor’, parents and teachers often believe that the ’student’ experience (which usually means an excess of leisure in various combinations) is unique to university, that somehow doing an apprenticeship won’t be ‘fun’ in the same way. 

Our experience couldn’t be further from the truth: you’re just as likely to have a great time as an apprentice as you are as a student – especially as you’ve actually got some money in your pocket! 

It turns out that having fun in this way is more to do with being 20 than it is to do with your educational label.

On the mental health level, there is growing anxiety across the university sector about students’ mental health.

According to the Institute for Public Policy Research, five times as many students as 10 years ago have disclosed mental health issuers to their universities.

No doubt the reasons are varied from exam stress, financial pressures to being away from home for the first time, students are a particularly vulnerable group since mental health problems often start in late adolescence or early adulthood.

This is not to say that apprentices don’t experience mental health challenges – like the rest of the population, many do struggle with life and its pressures.  But the idea that university is going to be fun and a valuable and necessary rite of passage needs to be challenged.

I should self-disclose here: I went to not one, but two, of the best universities in the UK.  I had a good time as a student and I learned a lot and met some interesting people. But I often wonder – what else could I have done with those years? 

I suspect I could have had just as much fun, learned even more and met equally interesting people by not going to university. 

And for my own children, my own assumption is that an apprenticeship will be the default route, with university a consideration in particular circumstances.

Ben Rowland, Director, Government & Public Services, AVADO

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