Long gone are the days when taking a course at university was a lightly-made choice. For many, a spell as an undergraduate would once have been taken for granted - perhaps a means of deferring a career decision or studying a subject of interest before moving on into a career.
Not any more. With some predictions forecasting individual graduate debt as high as £15,000, the meter will be running from the moment an eager student sets foot on campus. After graduating, this new debt-encumbered generation will face an increasingly competitive scramble for well-paid jobs. And evidence suggests that it's the technically-trained graduates - those with the practical, saleable skills - who will be ahead of the game.
Employers perennially bemoan the poor skills of graduate recruits. They want abilities such as problem solving and teamwork - skills not provided by the traditional university degree, though universities do now push employability. A third of all workers in the London labour market have degree level qualifications. Yet, for example, research shows that employers in the City of London need people with stronger vocational skills - many job applicants lack the basic skills to work in Square Mile banks and accountancy firms.
And a recent study by the Learning and Skills Development Agency on whether vocational education meets employers' needs found that while employers continue to seek graduates in preference to those with HNDs, small businesses said those with HNDs were more able to hit the ground running.
Young people still predominantly take the academic route to university. Surveys show that 90 per cent of those gaining two or more A-levels by the age of 18 were likely to be in higher education by 21. The comparable percentage for those with a Level 3 (comparable with A-level) vocational qualification is estimated at between 40 and 50 per cent. The introduction of university top-up fees is likely to increase the numbers of young people seeking alternative routes to higher education. Increasingly further education colleges offer higher education courses, giving young people the opportunity to live at home while studying for their degree, or to do a foundation degree at their local college before moving on to university.
When foundation degrees (two-year vocational qualifications) were launched by David Blunkett five years ago, some condemned them as "Mickey Mouse degrees". But now they are available in a wide range of subjects and in 2003/04 nearly 22,000 students signed up for them.
What of the bigger picture? Will the increasing cost of higher education also help to change deeply entrenched attitudes so that the true value of vocational skills is finally recognised? It seems their value is beginning to be understood by the public. According to the Learning and Skills Council, 57 per cent of British people rate vocational skills as more important than academic qualifications.
Yet people in the UK still place less importance on vocational skills than those in other European countries. In France three quarters of people rate vocational skills over academic. In Germany the figure is 67 per cent, in Sweden 64 per cent. The Government has launched an independent review to examine the future skill needs of our economy, headed by Sandy Leitch, chairman of the National Employment Panel. Its aims are to look at what skills we need to maximise economic growth and productivity by 2020.
Will we have grown up by then, shrugging off snobbery to regard a career as a career, a qualification a qualification, and a skill as a skill irrespective of where you gained it? Will we still be talking about academic versus vocational by 2020? I hope not.
The writer is chief executive of the Association of CollegesReuse content