If it is the UK government’s intention to reinstate the old division between working with your hands and working with your mind, it has come up with the perfect solution.
The decision to greatly expand the number of apprenticeships on offer but to in effect exclude university graduates from taking one up presents school-leavers with a stark choice. The temptations of university – free time, lots of people their own age and interesting things to learn – are set against the prospect of debt-free training for work. It is like some fiendish mass psychological experiment to divide everyone into two distinct classes, along the lines previously defined by attendance of grammar schools versus secondary moderns.
Eager to claw back what they can from the apprenticeship levy that all big employers are being obliged to pay, firms will battle for the hearts and minds of young people every bit as vigorously as universities. Marketing, advertising and PR will be the true winners.
If a young person is keen on a particular profession and there is an opening for an apprenticeship in that line of work, it would seem sensible to take that opportunity. Hence, universities are going to have to focus more on employment. That might seem an entirely good thing, but any institution has only limited funds, and the more it focuses on employability the less it can invest in the teaching and learning that is its raison d’être.
My own subject and former profession, journalism, is a good example of how apprenticeships are disrupting the conveyor belt of students from school into university. Publishers and editors have always been reluctant to make journalism a graduate profession, even though the vast majority of those now entering newsrooms are indeed graduates. The main reason is financial – having to pay a graduate salary is not something that cost-conscious publishers want to do when there are so many keen to enter the profession. But I suspect that there is also an element of inverted snobbery – the golden age of British journalism (whenever that was) did not involve the most educated of minds.
Apprenticeships in journalism – and related sectors including social media – are growing fast, with big media names such as the BBC, ITV and Sky all taking on apprentices. What impact this will have on university courses is far from clear, but I suspect that the two routes into the profession will continue unabated. Apprentices may well think when they finish, “Thank you very much, but I am off to uni now” – and never enter a newsroom again. Meanwhile, the specialist knowledge of politics, law or economics that a young person has picked up at university may still impress an editor enough to override any reluctance to hire graduates.
But the fact that graduates will not be able to decide at that stage to do an apprenticeship is cruel. Philosophers who have tired of the mysteries of Kant may well find themselves unable to break into the job market without much work experience or the stomach for more debt and education at master’s level.
True, graduates are not explicitly banned from taking up an apprenticeship, but the same lack of stomach for further debt is likely to dissuade most from paying for their own training. As for “degree apprenticeships”, which combine work with university study, the Higher Education Funding Council for England reports that just 1,000 people are enrolled this year. Even if the programme is expanded, it will remain a minnow in a sea of whales given the government’s target of 3 million apprentices by 2020, and the more than half a million people entering UK higher education in 2015 alone.
School-leavers are painfully ill-equipped to make an informed choice when there is such vast uncertainty about how the world will evolve during their probable 50-year working life. If they turn down the chance of an apprenticeship, the opportunity will not arise again.
The system is also unfair on employers, especially as they are the ones who are paying for it. If they want to take on a graduate, why shouldn’t they be allowed to?
A level playing field would be fairer. Young people should be able to choose an apprenticeship and a higher education, in whichever order suits them. More flexibility, more chances to make the right decision, less stress on the young: is that too much to ask?
Philip Cowan is a senior lecturer in journalism at the University of Hertfordshire.