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Apprentices and graduates – why can’t we agree we need both?

Zahir Irani argues that promoting vocational routes doesn't need to mean doing higher education down.
This article is more than 5 years old

Zahir Irani is Deputy Vice-Chancellor University of Bradford and Chair of the Bradford Council Economic Recovery Board

In the wake of some embarrassing figures, government ministers are talking up the apprenticeship route – but is it wise to do so at the expense of the reputation of graduates and HE?

Education Secretary Damian Hinds has said that Britain has become a nation of “snobs”, seeing a degree as the only “good” career route. And skills minister Anne Milton has joined the discussion, arguing that most graduates are “immature” and compare poorly with those who take a degree apprenticeship route, pointing to the number of employers who are cancelling their graduate recruitment programmes.

It’s all part of the movement for building up the vocational route, a re-positioning towards more skills-based education that pushes the UK closer to the much-admired model of Germany: we need a pipeline of technicians for the future, and that means a shift to respect and support for the vocational.

Keeping it real

That’s all fine in some respects – but aren’t the views being expressed about HE outdated and damaging to a sector that actually makes such a positive economic and social contribution? Introducing a dichotomy between apprenticeships and academic study isn’t helpful and in fact, is damaging. So when it comes to referring to the university sector it’s important there’s an appreciation of what it is (and isn’t) doing, and the extent of its role in relation to the evolving needs of employers and economies.

As a starting point, the factual evidence points doesn’t support the idea that employers are losing interest in graduate recruits. The DHLE results in general continue to show an upward trend in terms of employment trajectory on graduation. Around a third of graduates go immediately into jobs earning the national average or much more. Last year the Institute of Student Employers reported that businesses were hiring more graduates than ever (up 7% from 2017). At the same time, the jobs market and the nature of careers is becoming far less linear. Increasingly students want to avoid the rules and limitations of a traditional career ladder, they want to join small businesses where there can be more freedom, be part of a social enterprise or start their own business. Flexibility and choice is what graduates are seeking, regardless of route.

Integration, not opposition

In terms of the response from universities, credit-bearing skills programmes are being embedded into academic programmes, integrating knowledge with the specifics of relevant ‘real world’ applications. An example of the more proactive approach being taken is the work by Bradford on its ‘Career Booster’ programme – two solid week-long programmes of sessions along with regular weekly events, focused on getting students to see how they fit within the new world of work. As well as a mix of personal development (networking, negotiation, professionalism) and formal qualifications (data analytics, project management), it includes a focus on helping non-traditional students with unfamiliar graduate recruitment rituals like psychometric testing and assessment centres.

Technical skills for STEM industries are clearly important – but represent just one area of opportunity and value amongst others. British creative industries are expanding at just the same rate as STEM businesses, and are also expected to need more people resources than STEM: one million new jobs between 2013 and 2030 according to Nesta. The growth among organisations in the key regions for the creative industries is double that of any other sector. So, let’s start talking ourselves up, it’s better to collaborate than compete amongst ourselves.

The UK needs to be operating effectively on a global stage in the high-potential fields of science and technology. But the more essential national strengths of the UK, its education system and among its graduates, are around the ability to innovate, be creative, in its diversity, in the quality of thought – the kinds of sophisticated and flexible thinking skills, and sets of personal qualities and attributes, that an academic education provides. When employers are asked about what they want from new recruits they consistently point to soft broad skills – communication, positive attitude, problem-solving, emotional agility, team-working. More technical skills can be learnt at any point, and in any case need to be regularly updated to remain top of ones’ game and developments. All organisations need strong fundamentals more: smart, resilient, thoughtful people regardless of whether through an apprenticeship or graduate route.

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