Skills Development


Is university always the best option for skills development?

Guest blog by Elizabeth Anderson. She began her career at the Confederation of British Industry working in the corporate affairs and executive offices. Elizabeth is now a director at an educational trust, established by a renowned entrepreneurial philanthropist, where she leads on strategic projects and the development of a new educational institution in London. 

If you ask many people around the UK what ‘success’ looks like for school leavers, many of them will answer that a university offer represents the golden opportunity. And for many people, indeed, that is true. A university education can lead to graduate schemes and internships that can take many young people into their chosen career. But for some people, it may not be the pathway they need, even though careers advice may tell them otherwise.

For the last few years, businesses large and small, as well as employers groups such as the CBI, have been saying that many graduates lack the skills that they really need. Not technical skills – but soft skills. Communication, organisation. The ability to integrate into an office, the confidence to be a good employee. Many of us have seen ourselves how a fresh graduate, despite their qualifications, struggles to fit into the busy world they have entered into.

Many organisations are therefore starting to take students straight from school, where they can start to develop behaviours and attributes that will enable young people to become productive employees sooner. This can only be good for individuals and companies alike, as earning potential grows faster and sooner. In 2012, PwC led a coalition to deliver the Professional Service Higher Apprenticeship, and BPP delivers Professional Apprenticeships around legal and accountancy services. Companies from BT to Nestlé also use the apprenticeship scheme to access high achieving young people sooner.

But despite this support, and cross-party consensus that apprenticeships work, only 30% of employers are estimated to provide apprenticeships. A recent roundtable with Conservative MPs Andrew Jones and Mary Macleod heard that the benefits to the economy are huge – with every £1 spent leading to an economic boost 18 times that, according to National Audit Office figures.

One reason for low uptake by employers may be low understanding rates among young people. Apprenticeships are more commonly associated with manufacturing and engineering that professional skills. Information, advice and guidance within schools often leaves a gap, even though this is where most young people in reality find many of their choices.And apprenticeships are often viewed as a second rate option – even though the returns and instant gratification in terms of salary are much swifter than a university education.  Organisations such as Career Academies UK are starting to promote the schemes to the young people on their programmes, increasing competition for places and making the option more desirable to a wider group of young people.

University and apprenticeships work for different people.  Some people long for the freedom and independence that time at university can give them.  Others long for the freedom and independence that a full time job with a salary while they learn can also give them.

But most importantly, as businesses start to see the potential to create their own workforce of the future, without waiting for universities or educators to do this for them with mixed results, the widening of choice, the development of skills, and an emerging more agile and better trained workforce will be the result.


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