Kirstie Donnelly
Ahead of A-level results day, new research from skills organisation City & Guilds Group (@cityandguilds) uncovers the serious impact of the pandemic on young people’s decisions about their futures – with more school leavers turning towards university as a default choice as uncertainty in the jobs market bites.

However, with data suggesting that university may not live up to career and salary expectations, and with many of today’s university graduates set to leave with tens of thousands of pounds worth of debt – City & Guilds Group is urging school leavers to consider all the options available when considering their next steps this August.

The new research reveals that nearly three fifths (57%) of UK 17-19-year-olds in their final two years of school say their decisions about post education work / training have changed as a result of the pandemic, with a fifth (20%) saying that they now want to stay in full time education for longer than they originally intended. This is supported by reports from UCAS that university applications this year are at the highest ever level, up by a 10% year-on-year amongst 18-year-olds.

More specifically, four in ten (40%) 17-19-year-olds in their final two years of school report that they have planned or plan to go to university. This compares to 13% who say the same for apprenticeships, and 22% who plan to go straight into employment. Among those opting for university, it’s clear that many are influenced by the current economic downturn with 14% saying that they’re worried that it’ll be difficult to get a job or apprenticeships, and 14% saying it’s the ‘easiest thing to do’.

Faced with a rapidly changing and uncertain jobs market, young people are opting to go to university to improve their future career prospects. 44% of school leavers who are choosing university consider this to be the best way to get a job, and 39% say they know they will get paid well if they have a degree.

However, since the onset of the pandemic, this may no longer be the case. According to recent research from Incomes Data Research, now, both a graduate and a fully qualified degree-level apprentice could expect to earn the same salary upon completion of their qualification (£32,500), and data from the ONS finds nearly four in ten (37%) of all graduates are unable to land graduate level jobs.

Businesses are also prioritising new recruits who are work-ready. Data from City & Guilds Group’s Skills Index report – supported by the British Chambers of Commerce – found that employers are twice as likely to look to take on apprentices or trainees to fill skills gaps (36%), as opposed to graduates (18%). 

Kirstie Donnelly, CEO of City & Guilds, commented: 

“For many young people, the idea of university being the golden ticket to a great career is ingrained from an early age. But as the jobs landscape continues to reel from the impact of Covid-19 and Brexit, it’s more important than ever before to understand that this isn’t the only option available to them. Especially as we know from our recent Skills Index report that employers are increasingly recognising the value of apprentices and other routes into the workplace that teach workplace skills. 

“Ahead of results day, it’s important that young people understand the full range of options available to them and which types of jobs are likely to be available when they finish their studies. As part of this, we need to ensure that young people have access to robust and up to date careers advice that considers the genuine needs of the local labour market so they can make smarter choices about their career paths.”

Whilst school leavers are most likely to opt for university as a default next step, interestingly the new research finds that most don’t consider it to be best value for money, nor the best route to prepare for the workplace. Twice as many 17-19-year-olds in their final two years of school think apprenticeships are better value for money (42%) compared to undergraduate degrees (21%). And over three times as many believe apprenticeships are better for preparing people for the workplace (51%), compared to undergraduate degrees (15%).


City & Guilds Group commissioned Censuswide to survey 1,000 UK respondents aged 16-19 years old, of which 391 were aged 17-19 years old and in Key Stage 5 (Years 12-13). Fieldwork took place from 16th to 21st July 2021.

For the Skills Index employer research, City & Guilds Group commissioned British Chambers of Commerce to survey 1,090 of its member businesses across the UK. Fieldwork took place in April 2021.

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