Ann Watson, managing director of EAL (EMTA Awards), has highlighted how increasing university fees may inadvertently provide a boost in numbers for vocational training.

Watson said that the anticipated rise in university fees to £7,000 a year may encourage school leavers to seek alternative options to higher education.

‘University is becoming more and more expensive, and a time will come when a degree becomes an option many people simply can’t afford,’ she said. ‘As young people explore their further education options, they may well find that the vocational route, with its combination of on-the-job and classroom-based training supported by a salary from day one, is a more attractive option than university. In a way, it may boil down to whether school leavers want an opportunity to learn skills for life or start their careers saddled with debt.’

She added: ‘At a time when graduate fees and living costs are rising and leading to worrying levels of debt, there is a duty for schools and colleges to inform students properly about alternative options, including vocational training.

‘This advice is generally lacking in the current system and, as a result, young people are turning to university in the belief that this is their only option for a rewarding career.’

Watson further commented that the lack of university places this year had presented the skills sector with a golden chance to attract intelligent young people.

‘An increase in interest in the skills sector is welcome, but we desperately need companies to take on apprentices,’ she said. ‘If they don’t, the UK’s ability to compete on a global scale in high-tech industries, such as engineering and around key issues including carbon reduction, will be threatened.

‘I know money is scarce at the moment, but the government must encourage firms to train apprentices, not just declare an increase in the number of places available on courses.

‘At the same time, firms must strategically ring-fence their budgets to take on and develop the next generation of skilled workers. They will reap the benefits, as statistics show that apprentices’ productivity increases nearly tenfold between years one and four of their training, demonstrating how investment in them is repaid in abundance.’