Charlie Mullins: The UK has an unnatural obsession with university

After the financial crash and the subsequent recession, higher education was attacked from two flanks: budget cuts, and the realisation that people with degrees in surfing won’t put the country on an even economic keel.

However, after Thursday’s A Levels, the first results day to take place since the cap on university places in England was lifted allowing universities to recruit as many students as each want to take, our hallowed halls of learning saw a three per cent rise in students being accepted for places.

Don’t get me wrong, I am not completely against higher education. We need scientists, engineers and surgeons, and degree-level training is essential to make sure we have the best in the world. I just despair at this country’s continued obsession with university.

One possible bright spot in this depressing tale is the fact that there 48,000 of the near half million going to university this autumn will be starting degrees in business studies. But the more I think about it, rather than creating entrepreneurs I have a horrible feeling that it will just see more students swapping their mortar boards and gowns for pin-striped suits and masks to become the next generation of City crooks.

During the recession there was a conscious shift in thinking that the education this country was delivering was not preparing our young people well enough for the world of work. In particular there was a lack of decent vocational education, which can be sculpted into a form to suit multiple professions and industries that delivers practical, job-related skills supported by respected qualifications.

Up until recently, vocational training had been treated like the black sheep of the education family that no one wanted to talk about. It was the preserve of the supposed low achievers and naughty kids. Instead we told all our young people that unless they got a degree from a university they were probably going to fail in life.

This makes no sense at all. We ended up with a country full of history and English graduates, but not enough plumbers, electricians and bricklayers.

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In the past six or seven years, however, there has been an increasing focus on vocational training. From a group of forward thinking politicians to business owners like myself, we have fought tooth and nail to get practical training, and in particular apprenticeships, back on the agenda.

We have had some level of success with the previous coalition, but more significantly with the current government, with its commitment to create three million more apprenticeships in the next five years as well as introducing a levy on large companies that will help fund apprenticeship training.

We can share in the spoils of the victory from this battle, but we are realistically no closer to winning the war.

The PR apprenticeships have received in the recent years has had the positive effect of turning more young people onto vocational education. Our recruitment department can bear witness to this based on the large number of unsolicited applications we receive every week.

The downside is that our business, like the majority in the UK, don’t have the resource to take on as many apprentices as we’d like. And this will only perpetuate the skills shortage, not solve it.

This is why I am calling for a fully-funded, nationally-organised apprenticeship scheme which means that every young person without a job or a further education place can continue their education by doing an apprenticeship. No ifs, no buts, no half measures. This is what’s needed. And in a decade, such a scheme will put an end to unemployment and fast-track the UK economy back to the premier league, by deleting our skills gap.

The debate surrounding this proposal often end with concerns about cost and that the country will be landed with a big bill. But if apprenticeships are truly part of the education mix, we should look at the whole system and slice up funding accordingly based on the needs of the economy and the countries future – not universities thirst for cash and young people’s misguided desire to earn a degree that will add no real value to the country.

After all, kids at schools and sixth form colleges have their A Levels paid for by the state. Why can’t apprenticeships be the same? If that was the case less people would do A Levels and go to university, which means we’re using the education pound we already have in our pocket rather than trying to find more cash to pay for apprenticeships.

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