Default position: are university admissions killing the apprentice

News editor

A relative has just achieved BBC grades at ‘A’ level, which on the face it looks fairly impressive so congratulations to him and the thousands of others that passed their exams last week.

Like many of his peers, my second cousin isn’t 100% sure of what he wants to do with his life and has flirted with a range of career options that include joining the Royal Navy as a graduate engineer to doing a degree in town planning. The trouble is, the prospect of a mountain of post-university debt has put him off higher education – for now – but he is at least in a position to exercise choices.

A post-university career in engineering might suit him well for a myriad of reasons, including pay. According to The Complete University Guide, chemical engineering graduates earn £29,000, mechanical engineers can expect to earn £26,000 and electrical/electronic engineers are remunerated to the tune of £24,000.

According to a recent survey, over half of parents believe they’ve the biggest influence over their offspring’s career choices and said relative’s mother opined recently that an advanced apprenticeship might suit her son.

If only more parents had this insight. GTI media, a graduate recruitment company, and Ernst & Young (EY) commissioned the YouGov survey of 1,018 parents, of whom only 9% were ‘fully aware’ of apprenticeships or higher apprenticeship programmes.

EY’s Maggie Stilwell notes that university often becomes the default option due to a lack of awareness of apprenticeships, school leaver programmes and vocational further education courses.

This rush to university is also causing concern at Semta, the employer-led body that is doing its bit to ensure the right skills are available in engineering and advanced manufacturing.

Semta head Ann Watson believes the uptake of university places can have unintended consequences, one of which is to facilitate the skills gap and another to raise the age of apprentice applicants.

According to SEMTA, there were 161,600 apprentice starts in 2014 for people aged 25 and over, compared to 25,500 16-year-olds.

The government wants three million news apprentices over the course of the next five years and has introduced the apprentice levy to facilitate this. However, as Watson notes, the widening of university admissions could help to derail this ambition.

Like GTI media/EY, Semta and the STEM Alliance have also found that a knowledge gap exists when it comes to job-related training, with 10 per cent of teachers and parents having sufficient knowledge of vocational pathways to work. Findings from GTI media/EY reveal that 64 per cent of parents polled by YouGov recognised that that they needed better information and called for more resources to help them to support their children.

The final word on this goes to Stilwell, who said: “Regardless of whether students ultimately opt for university, a school leaver scheme, apprenticeship or another route entirely, it’s important that they are able to make well informed choices about their career path. This requires parents, schools and employers to work together to fill the current perceived guidance gap.”