Who Needs a Place at University Anyway?

Published on: 23 Aug 2012

Many of the 335,000-strong UK cohort of A-level students this year will be nursing hangovers on the morning after results day, having partied hard in celebration. Others will be dismayed to find that they haven’t got a university place: UCAS data shows a 7 per cent decrease in the number of students being automatically accepted into their chosen university degree, meaning a scramble for clearing places. Then there are those who twenty, ten or even five years ago would have been preparing to support themselves through a degree. They, though, will have snubbed the traditional route of securing a job after graduating from university.

Apprentices Outpace Graduates

Rising tuition fees coupled with an increase in applicants per place in a stagnant graduate job market have led to A-level students considering their next step with more caution than in previous years. Aware of the challenges facing today’s students, firms are rolling out heavyweight school-leaver schemes such as apprenticeships and sponsored-degree programmes to challenge the traditional university routes. And this change is proving popular: new data by City & Guilds Centre for Skills Development have revealed the number of 14-to-19-year-olds starting higher-level vocational training has more than doubled in the past year.

In non-manufacturing, “modern” apprenticeships, the big four accountant PricewaterhouseCoopers has seen a 464 per cent rise in applications since 2008, and increased its school-leaver intake by 25 per cent since 2010. KPMG, Grant Thornton, Ernst & Young and Barclays have all introduced school-leaver schemes this year.

In the past, school leavers have been a relatively untapped source of labour for major employers, who chased university graduates rather than sharp individuals who didn’t want to pursue higher education. Rachel Hill, the senior trainee recruitment manager at Grant Thornton, says: “We recognised that these apprenticeships provided a different and effective way of attracting high-quality talent that didn’t want to go to university but would rather get straight out into the working world.” Similarly, Antony Jenkins, the chief executive at Barclays retail and business banking, says: “Traditionally, banks have looked more towards graduates, but our apprenticeship programme recognises that there are also lots of talented people who are currently struggling to get into work because they lack prior experience or qualifications.” However, regardless of the opportunities they provide, apprenticeships may not always attract the best and the brightest.

Bridging the gap between apprenticeships and the traditional university route are sponsored degrees. These provide students with a viable alternative to funding their own way through higher education. For example, Nottingham Trent University offers students a BA in business management, a degree which is being sponsored by firms including Rolls-Royce, Toyota and Boots. Barclays is set to triple the number of sponsored students it takes from the university over the next two years.

 Dr Polly Pick, head of executive education and corporate relations at the university, says: “We have seen the interest in such sponsored degrees shoot up in recent years. Such schemes allow students to gain a degree whilst building work experience with the sponsoring company and avoiding debt.”

Unlike apprenticeship schemes, the grade requirements for these degrees mirror those of top universities, with the average offer circling the AA B mark. The students are interviewed by the company for the course, with successful applicants receiving a salary from day one.

From the viewpoint of the sponsor, such degrees ensure they are able to mould candidates into ideal employees through the provision of firm specific training and the creation of company loyalty. The result is willing employees with a history with the firm, equipped with lower salary expectations than graduate hires, who can expect a starting salary over £30,000. Critics of the traditional university route have also been keen to point out that there is a large skills gap between what students are taught at university and what they will need to know in the real world.

A 2012 report by Dr Paul Sissons for the Work Foundation claims more young people are struggling to make the initial transition from education into sustained work due to their lack of experience of paid employment. Paul Levett, the chief product officer at SHL Talent Analytics, has recently said the British education system focuses too much on analytical skills, not people skills.

Richard Irwin, PwC head of student recruitment, says: “The kind of attributes that are important to success in our  business are things like drive, tenacity, intellectual agility and the ability to build lasting relationships. These aren’t easily taught.” Curiously, though, many pupils and educators privately moan that alternatives to going to university are still poorly advertised. As an A-level maths teacher from Buckinghamshire puts it: “Some students are unaware of the alternatives. The emphasis is very much on the UCAS process and there is little in the way of information for those who don’t want to follow the university herd.” However, the long-term trend suggests that the traditional university graduate route is no longer the be all and end all that it had been for school leavers of previous generations. And employers will no longer have to rely so heavily on the university milk round to fulfil their hiring needs.