Lawrence Jones says UK May Have Lost its Way in Higher Education

4 min read People MSPs
Reading that there has been a 24% drop in the number of people starting in-work training, Lawrence Jones, CEO at UKFast, says he can’t help but feel that Britain has somewhat lost its way with higher education.

Just a couple of years ago there was a huge drive towards changing the face of apprenticeships. Families were coming around to the idea that university was no longer the only option for young people after school. This is particularly true in the technology industry where graduates were finishing university with a degree, yet they are ill-equipped as they’d focussed on the wrong or old technologies.

In such a fast-paced industry, it’s difficult for businesses to stay ahead of the game, let alone schools and universities but regardless of blame, it’s not fair on young adults who invest in expensive degree courses if they are not relevant or keeping up to date.

Universities should have a moral obligation to understand what a student is wanting to achieve in life and to marry up the necessary course. If they don’t have one that specifically benefits a student, they should not be encouraging someone to pursue a piece of paper that’s more use to light a BBQ than prove they are work ready for the tech sector.

Equally the same applies to businesses offering to educate students through apprenticeships. If you don’t believe you are able to provide them with a job at the end, it’s ethically wrong to use someone’s informative years as cheap labour.

It’s time we all stepped up a gear and started acting responsibly when it comes to the education of our children and the next generation.

In stark contrast to degrees, on-the-job training through apprenticeships teaches young people practical skills they need, literally on the job, whilst actually paying them money too. The difference is not just in their skills and use, as financially they are significantly better off.

If an apprentice earns £11,000 a year for the first two years and then between £26,000 and £30,000 in the third year, which is the case for a great deal of our apprentices at UKFast, their three-year education program has contributed between, £48,000 and £52,000 to their cost of living. Along with giving them incredible earning capacity from a very early stage.

University on the other hand is costing people huge tuition fees. On average they are three-year courses and the average debt from young adults graduating from the ones we speak with is over £40,000 and in some cases over £50,000.

The difference between salaries across the three years is staggering. When you do the maths an apprentice is better off than a graduate in some cases by more than £102,000. At best, a graduate is worse off by £88,000.

From my experience their earning capacity is vastly reduced too as there is a giant pool of graduates all coming into the market hungry for jobs at the same time. This drives their worth and salaries down. Whereas apprentices have proven their worth and are more likely to be in jobs graduates, who then need retraining in the right technology areas command less than apprentices with salaries between £21,000 and £24,000.

Combining learning and work experience makes for an invaluable young person, getting their first step on their career ladder significantly earlier. We see a big difference in confidence between graduates and apprentices after three years.

Apprenticeships vs university

I’ve even heard one of our apprentices, Tinisha, calling her apprenticeship a fast track to her career. Yet, clearly something isn’t working for there to have been a drop off of almost a quarter in programme uptake – especially when the new levy has just come into action.

Unfortunately, schools seem to be actively putting young people off apprenticeships and, instead, are pushing teenagers towards university.

Tinisha explained that her IT teacher actively tried to discourage her from pursuing IT as it was male dominated. He also explained that an apprenticeship would be a waste of her talent.

Extraordinary advice that thankfully she never took. Tinisha was lucky though, she had two uncles in UKFast and had grown up coming to UKFast events from the age of 10 years old. When she told me this, I got goosebumps and realised how the work we do in the community and with families at UKFast, not only helps the people who experience it directly, but it also gives a positive experience that continues for decades later.

Schools are encouraging universities as there is pressure to continue with impressive stats, for example, schools like to say ‘x% of our sixth form went to university’. Schools believe parents want to see this. Yet, surely parents and pupils would benefit more from seeing the sort of earning capacity and careers the youngsters have three to five years on. But this is a stat that requires more work and no one is interested in this.

My initial reaction to hearing about these problems is that I can’t help thinking parents and schools are letting down the next generation and missing a huge opportunity.

Graduate vs Apprentice

Two of my apprentices recently bought houses and are doing them up. Imagine the difference. Not just in cash, but in equity starting on the property ladder at 20 to 21 years of age.

Chatting with one of our teaching team it’s clear that some teachers simply don’t know enough about the benefits of apprenticeships. One of our own teachers highlighted this to me in a recent press interview with the Financial Times, where we were discussing the drop off in apprenticeship uptake.

But in the schools’ and parents’ defence, not all businesses and apprenticeship programmes are equal. In the same way not all universities and their courses are equal either. There are businesses which still view apprentices as cheap labour, and there are no guarantees of jobs at the end of the programme. We have a 98% hiring rate at the end of the apprenticeship programme. We have over 70 who are in this category and if we don’t get our apprentices in to the position of being able to hire them, I feel that WE have failed.

Only when other businesses approach their apprenticeship programme with this attitude will they really get the full benefit of the whole scheme.

So, it’s little wonder that there’s still questions around apprenticeships vs university.

Teaching the teachers?

How do we show sceptical teachers that apprenticeships are a credible option when there are quotas to get young people into university? It’s certainly not easy but getting out there and getting to know schools and their teams is essential. I did a session where I met with all the new graduates last year and I got them all to ask how much debt they are in. It was horrific to hear the answer. Collectively in the room there was over £1million of debt. I was ashamed to see the pain on their faces when they answered my next question, “How many of you regret spending this money on your degree?” Everyone bar one person raised their hand.

In that room, not a single person used their degree for the job they are now doing and this is not an uncommon story.

If you are a teacher or a parent and you want to learn more, come and visit us. I will happily show you around our educational facilities. It’s arguably the biggest decision of every child’s life and it’s one parents and schools play a huge part influencing.

Help them make the right choice.