For a long time obtaining a degree has been thought of as the main way to secure a well-paid and fulfilling career- a golden ticket to the good life if you will. Yet this narrative is increasingly falling in to disrepair with reports that many graduates are now finding themselves in non-graduate positions wondering whether their university education, and the hefty price tag that comes with it, was really worth it. So how important is a degree and are we undervaluing other pathways into successful and fulfilling careers?
This question is one that has been high on the Government’s agenda in the last few weeks. Theresa May, in her recent speech initiating yet another review of post-18 education and university tuition fees, argued that the current higher education system was no longer working. Importantly, the PM challenged the “outdated attitude” that prizes academic qualifications over technical skills and the perception that university is always deemed the best option for school leavers.
It was this aspect of May’s speech that struck a particular cord with me. She rightly challenged the snobbery around vocational courses and the notion that technical courses are for “other people’s children”. Her desire to break down the barriers between academic and vocational courses is an admirable one which is bang on the money.
Of course, obtaining a degree has its benefits and is an important part of cultivating a highly-skilled workforce. Yet the dangerous narrative that a degree is the main path to success is a misleading and damaging one that overlooks the importance of technical skills and vocational courses.
It was New Labour who first set the target that half of school leaders should go to university and we have already seen the consequences – saturation of the market and more courses that don’t necessarily provide value for money. For example, a report by the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development in 2015 found that 58.8% of UK university graduates are working in non-graduate jobs with over-qualification having reached “saturation point”. Another study undertaken by the Institute for Public Policy Research in 2014 found that the growth in university graduates has already outstripped demand, resulting in a substantial mismatch in the labour market. The 2014 report also predicted that in the next ten years two-thirds of new jobs will be in medium and low-skilled areas.
It is also important to remember that vocational courses can be a fantastic way to secure a great career. With a vocational course, students can learn vital workplace skills tailored specifically to the skills needed in each sector. This is not to say that the vocational training sector is perfect. As May noted, it is also in need of some reform with too much variation in standards across the sector and patchy funding- but these reforms are worth making precisely because vocational training is so key.
At the root of this discussion is the need to rethink how we understand success and what careers guidance we offer to pupils. This problem is about far more than policy alone, it requires a shift in attitudes among schools, parents and society. It is time we put to bed the idea that university is the key pathway to future success and recognise that there are many great options available to today’s students- all of which can also lead to brilliant and fulfilling careers, the sooner the better!