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Traditional three-year university is not only path to top, CBI tells teenagers


Teenagers should be told to drop the idea that a traditional three-year university degree course is the only route to a top job, Britain’s businesses warn today.

Instead, they should be encouraged to embark upon “earn-while-you-learn” courses equipping them with the high level skills they need for employment.

A report by the Confederation of British Industry, published today, debunks the idea - which has been fashionable in government circles for decades - that growing numbers of school leavers should be encouraged to take up traditional university courses.

“We need to tackle the idea that the A-levels and three year-degree model is the only route to a good career,” said Katja Hall, CBI policy director.

She added:  “The skills needs of tomorrow’s economy will be different to the needs of today’s.”

The report, Tomorrow’s Growth, argues for a push towards more shorter and part-time degree courses or “sandwich” courses which include a year in industry.  Traditional degree courses, it adds, will not meet the needs of key industries likely to expand such as  manufacturing, construction, IT and engineering.

It also urges ministers to take action to combat the “catastrophic” slump in the numbers taking part-time degree courses to allow older workers to retrain and learn the skills of the new growth industries.

Evidence suggest today’s school leavers - faced with the prospect of £27,000 debt from their three-year degree courses costing £9,000 a year - were already becoming “savvier” in shopping around for alternative after school routes to give them the skills needed for employment.

“Universities must be much more innovative to take advantage of the change in students’ approach,” it said.  “And we need businesses to roll up their sleeves and expand high quality alternative routes where degrees are not the best option for young people.”

It calls for more apprenticeships and much more “inspiration” in providing careers advice in schools. A UCAS-style system listing the availability of vocational courses would also help persuade young people to opt for alternative options to the three-year degree.

“Careers advice in England has never been as good as as it needs to be with vocational options long undersold as an option for young people,” it said.

For years, it said, calls for vocational courses to be put on an equal footing with academic courses have prompted suggestions that the UK should ape the German education system - which does give equal status to both.  “it’s time to stop talking about Germany and start building a British skills system that works,” said Ms Hall.

“The UK’s struggle to provide young people with effective routes into vocational education has been a persistent preoccupation of policymakers since Prince Albert established the Royal Commission in 1851,”the report added.

Ever since the Robbins report in the 1960’s, successive governments have been in favour of expanding the number of school leavers opting for a university place. In current exam league tables, one of the rankings is based on the percentage of pupils getting top grade passes in subjects selected by the Russell Group - which represents 24 of the most research intensive higher education institutions in the UK - as “facilitating” entry to one of their universities, i.e English, maths, science and languages.

Today’s report signals that should not necessarily be the top priority in government circles in the future.

Case study

Natalie Jackson went to “night school” to study for her degree at the age of 18 - thus enabling her to earn while she was learning.

Natalie enrolled on a four-year degree course in economics and social policy at Birkbeck, University of London - where all the classes were taught during the evening.

It enabled her to take a job with Nationwide during the day and then spend another year working as an accounts assistant.  Between her third and fourth year of studies, she secured a summer internship at the then Financial Services Authority (now Prudential Regulation Authority).  She was able to extend this while she studied for the final year of her degree.

After graduating from Birkbeck last year, she won a place on the graduate recruitment scheme at the FSA (now PRA).  “If I’d been studying during the day then I wouldn’t have been able to do the internship during my final year of study and having both a well-respected degree and the work experience as well meant that I stood out during the recruitment process for the graduate scheme,” she said.