Due to August’s A Level fiasco and social distancing restrictions affecting teaching delivery of most university courses, many school leavers across the UK may have found themselves reconsidering their next step in their career path.
A government U-turn, which allowed students in England, Wales and Northern Ireland to apply to their first-choice university with their original teacher-predicted grades, meant that an abnormal number of students met their university offer requirements this year.
Concern was raised that universities would have too many applicants per number of course places available, particularly as the government withdrew the cap on the number of students each institution can annually accept for this academic year.
To combat the influx of applicants, Durham University became the first UK institution to offer a financial incentive to applicants to defer their place for a year, promising a bursary if successful applicants took a gap year and began their studies in October 2021 instead.
As many young people may be forced to reconsider their next step due to oversubscribed university courses, should we be taking time to question how much pressure is being put on school leavers to attend university?
The ‘Traditional’ Route
A recent survey of 1,500 school leavers revealed that two thirds of pupils were encouraged to apply to higher education courses by their teachers whilst almost six out of ten said their parents wanted them to choose that route.
This may come as no surprise since, in the UK, between 24-38% of jobs require a Bachelor’s degree.
Figures revealed that in the academic year 2017/8, over 50 per cent (50.2%) of 17-30 years old in England had participated in higher education.
This figure came 20 years after Tony Blair, the then prime minister, set out to make university the traditional route into employment by creating a policy target of 50 per cent of young people going into higher education.
This policy was put in place, however, before the tuition fee rise to £9250 per year was set by the government in 2017.
The cost of tuition fees, alongside student rent and cost of living, can be a considerable factor for students to consider.
Ellece, who completed a HR apprenticeship within fire service after leaving school, told Unsaid that the prospect of immense student debt was part of the reason she decided to apply for an apprenticeship after completing secondary school.
“University did interest me at first but the prospect of getting into large amounts of debt, not gaining the same level of experience you get from work and also potentially moving far away from home worried me.
My qualifications I’ve attained along with the experience puts me in a great position for moving onto an advisor/managers role in many other companies. I would also hope that the experience gives me more of an advantage than if I’d done the same course at uni for 3 years, without financial worries.”
In February, a study of 2,000 adults of England by City & Guilds found that apprenticeships are considered amongst adults to be a better alternative to high education in terms monetary value (57 per cent vs 5 per cent) and longevity of skills acquired (39 per cent vs 13 per cent).
73 per cent of respondents said that they believed apprenticeships gave young people valuable preparation for their future career, whilst only 52 per cent said the same for undergraduate degrees.
Yet, 50 per cent of those surveyed said that they would still choose applying to university over an apprenticeship.
“For those that think there is a stigmatism attached to apprenticeships; if you choose the right employer there should be none”, said Ellece. “In every way I have been treated as equal to my other colleagues, if not better for the additional opportunities I’ve been given!”
In February, it was recorded by the ONS that the number of young people under the age of 19 taking up an apprenticeship has declined by 11.2%.
“University was the only thing my school pushed for student to do after A levels so initially I really struggled to find an apprenticeship that suited me”, said Ellece.
Kirstie Donelley, interim CEO at City & Guilds, said that the research shows that ‘there continues to be a stigma attached to taking an apprenticeship’ and schools should be actively encouraging pupils to consider it as a route into employment.
“More must be done now to promote apprenticeships both within schools and, more generally, amongst the public. We would like to see greater collaboration between businesses, the Government and schools to promote this fantastic training route to people of all ages.”
School leavers wanting to take a break
Yet, for those who wish to go to university but choose, for any reason, to delay entry until the following academic year, it appears there is also a lack of advice offered in schools.
Samuel, a current student at Cambridge who took gap year after completing secondary school to travel around France and South America told Unsaid:
“In terms school advice, there was very little information on gap years. Most people just went to university the year after because it seemed like the next step or they really wanted to get to university – but I never really understood the reason why people felt so rushed? My school was very academically driven – no advice on gap years and pretty much nothing on apprenticeships either.”
With on average, one out of ten UK undergraduates dropping out of university before their second year of study, starting a course in higher education straight after finishing secondary school may not be the most suitable career route for all.
In light of the A Level exam crisis and social distancing restrictions impacting most higher education courses this academic year, perhaps schools should be reminding pupils that there are other options, other than heading straight to university, to consider.