We are on the verge of a revolution where employers start looking to real skills rather than degrees.
GOING to university used to be an elite preserve. Today, nearly half of under-30s start a degree. But there is an irony in this apparent new egalitarianism: not all degrees are equal.
As university places grew, apprenticeships declined. But in countries like Germany and Switzerland, apprenticeships have high status. Working for Siemens, I found their engineering apprentices as well qualified as science postgraduates like me.
Now apprenticeships are enjoying a revival here but they suffer from two problems. Not enough are good enough. And not enough young people know what’s on offer.
Yet, good apprenticeships are a better deal than many degrees. New Boston Consulting Group research shows that completing the best apprenticeships (at level 5) can bring lifetime earnings £50,000 higher than a traditional degree at a new university, allowing for student debt and the chance to earn while you learn.
These are averages. You would earn £160,000 more from a Russell Group university, and recent Institute of Fiscal Studies research, drawing on tax data, has shown considerably higher earnings for the top tenth of graduates. Subject choice matters too: there are big earnings differences between engineering and medicine compared with creative arts degrees.
So, university is still a good deal for many, but access remains unequal. You are still eight times more likely to get to a top university where opportunities are best from a rich rather than a poor neighbourhood, which is why we run summer schools for sixth formers at our best universities.
But it is not a great deal for all. Earlier this month, Higher Education Funding Council for England research showed that one in five graduates was not in a graduate-level job three and a half years after graduation.
It is true that going to university is about more than money. It broadens the mind and opens up new experiences. But getting a good job matters too, and employers increasingly expect young people to have proper work experience. Apprenticeships do this better than serial internships. But there aren’t enough good apprenticeships.
The government plans to create three million apprenticeships by 2020. But too many will be at GCSE standard when we are crying out for far more people skilled at least to level 3, A-level standard. Only four in 10 apprenticeships for young people meet this more exacting level, compared with virtually all in Germany.
Any apprentice should be able to progress to A-level standard without having to start a new course. There are signs of change at the top. Increasingly, firms such as the accountants Deloitte and PriceWaterhouseCoopers recruit school leavers, who they consider hungrier than graduates.
At the same time, around 20,000 places a year are now available on higher and degree apprenticeship programmes, though their numbers must grow faster.
And perhaps most remarkably, Clarissa Farr, high mistress of St Paul’s Girls’ School in London, which sends approximately half of its sixth-formers to Oxbridge, said in July that choosing not to enter higher education “could be a more exciting and faster route to the top”.
It remains to be seen how many of her students take that advice, and how many of their parents accept such a decision. Most schools remain oblivious to the new choices. Polling suggests most teachers would rarely recommend an apprenticeship to bright students and eight in 10 sixth-formers believe university is best for their prospects.
Yet I believe we are on the verge of a revolution, where the skills needs of employers coincide with growing worries about the value of some degrees.
If we are to harness its power, we need much better careers advice in schools. We need a nationwide apprenticeships awareness campaign to challenge preconceptions. But most importantly, government, employers and other providers need to work together to provide more high-quality apprenticeships.
Our economy demands that we do more to craft a world-class apprenticeship sector that provides young people with the skills they need for their futures and a genuine path to success. If we get it right, our young people and our economy will be the winners.
Sir Peter Lampl is chairman of the Sutton Trust and of the Education Endowment Foundation. The new report Levels of Success is available at www.suttontrust.com.