Higher vs Vocational education: which path to choose as a young person?

For a generation, expectations for education after secondary school have been geared towards higher (achieving a university degree of some form) rather than vocational education (covering skills courses). Young people are now far more likely to go to university than to attend a vocational course at college or complete other training, resulting in, some might say, a swollen graduate population without enough graduate jobs to go around. However, the Government’s Post-16 Skills Plan might start to change this.

The strategy addresses the confusing array of qualifications available for vocational education. Currently, there are more than 20,000 courses on offer through countless providers across the country. The proposal is to simplify that into 15 courses, each organised through a dedicated provider, and with key skills at their core such as English, maths and IT. This strategy has been in formulation for quite some time; but does go some way to address the skills shortage that leaving the EU may cause. There are some fears that skilled EU migrants in the tech and science sectors will no longer want to live in the UK, and we will struggle to run some of our crucial industries. But there are wider implications to this strategy.

The introduction and increases to tuition fees have brought the consequences of attending university into sharp focus, as young people are agreeing to take on a significant amount of debt before they have even begun their adult lives. The willingness to do this is bound to decline when the likelihood of entering a higher-paying, interesting graduate job – that you could not have done without a degree – is frustrated by a graduate job market saturated with eager and intelligent twenty-somethings.

The median graduate starting salary this year was £30,000 (although this is inevitably skewed by some far high paying positions), suggesting there are rewards for going to university (as the UK’s average salary is £26,500). However, top employers received 13% more graduate job applications in 2015/16 than the previous year, and the average number of applications for each graduate job in 2014 was 39. Those odds are enough to make any sensible person question taking this route – my own family asked me whether taking on more than £35,000 of debt would be worth the risks involved. The solution to this, and to ensuring that those who do attend university receive the maximum possible benefit from the experience, could be to offer an alternative route and improve provision in vocational education.

It is hoped the reforms will allow young people to choose a course that will give them the best chance of entering technical employment, with subject routes including construction, digital, and social care training. However, there are concerns that colleges will not be ready to deliver these courses from 2019 as planned, and – working on the assumption that our next general election will still be in 2020 – that there will not be funding increases forthcoming to reflect the additional responsibilities involved.

But it’s a start. The Government is recognising that not everyone is suited to go to university, not every job requires the skills gained from crafting essays, and not every young person feels the need to postpone the beginning of their career to their early 20s. The Post-16 Skills Plan is looking to bring old ideas around vocational education into the 21st century, at a time when it is certainly going to be needed.