Editorial: More to do to end our fixation with academia

In Germany, whose economy has attracted envious attention, around half of all young people go into some kind of technical education

Share

How appropriate that the new president of the National Union of Students is – for the first time ever – someone who has not been to university. In the aftermath of the financial crisis, all the talk is of rebalancing the economy, of “making things again”, of newly dynamic industries conquering global markets. Toni Pearce’s vision of a country where the scion of a family of Russell Group alumni can choose an apprenticeship with head held high – and career prospects intact – is, then, a timely one. Without the kind of vocational and technical skills that have for so long played a muted second fiddle to academic qualifications, the talk of a rebalanced Britain will remain just that.

We have a long way to go, though. The model, of course, is Germany. The German economy may now have been dragged down by the travails of the eurozone, but its performance, both before and after the financial crisis, attracted envious attention in Britain and across the world. The key is the country’s vibrant manufacturing base; and while its infrastructure, labour reforms and multitude of small companies – the much-envied mittelstand – all play a role, so does its education system.

The contrast with Britain could hardly be more striking. Here – where youth unemployment is rising even as employers complain that they cannot find the skills they need – fewer than one in 10 school-leavers pursue a vocational qualification and a tiny fraction enter an apprenticeship. In Germany, around half of all young people go from school into some kind of technical education, and more than 40 per cent become apprentices.

In fairness, we have made some progress. Thanks to a big push from the Coalition, apprentice numbers have rocketed. Meanwhile, a watchdog has now been appointed to whip the further education sector into shape. And another 13 “universal technical colleges” have just been approved – which means that by 2015 Britain will have 45 schools specifically designed to train technicians and engineers, from the age of 14. The mood music is also good. Only last month, Nick Clegg railed against the “second division” perception of non-academic qualifications.

Behind the heartening headlines, however, the picture is altogether more mixed. True, more than 500,000 people started apprenticeships last year, but a dwindling number of them were school-leavers. In fact, the majority were people aged 25 or older who were already in work, often with the employer offering them the apprenticeship. Nor is quality less of an issue than quantity, according a government-commissioned review. Too many schemes last mere months, rather than years, and offer little of educational value.

Further education is hardly less of a challenge. With Ofsted’s most recent review concluding that more than a third of FE colleges are not good enough, is it any wonder that technical qualifications are the poor relation? The Government is now making moves to address the situation. But the fact it ever arose says more about political priorities – and the gaps between the departments for education and for business – than all the soaring speeches put together.

It would be unrealistic to expect decades of educational institution-building and cultural prejudice to be overturned in an instant. Even so, much more must be done if the tanker is to be turned around. Extra money is, as ever, part of the equation. But that is not all. Better links with industry, a rigorous focus on quality, and a more coherent approach from the Government are also desperately needed. If the president of the NUS can add to the pressure, on behalf of students themselves – that will help, too.

React Now

Latest stories from i100
SPONSORED FEATURES
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Sales Executive - OTE £35,000

£18000 - £23000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Sales Executive is required t...

SThree: Trainee Recruitment Consultant

£20000 - £25000 per annum + competitive: SThree: £20000 - £25000 per annum + c...

Recruitment Genius: Project Coordinator

£25000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This company provides a number ...

Recruitment Genius: Graduate Sales Consultant - OTE £45,000

£15000 - £45000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Do you want to work for an exci...

Day In a Page

Read Next
 

Turkey conflict: Every regional power has betrayed the Kurds so Turkish bombing is no surprise

Robert Fisk
 

At last! An Education Secretary who thinks teachers should teach

Chris Maume
Solved after 200 years: the mysterious deaths of 3,000 soldiers from Napoleon's army

Solved after 200 years

The mysterious deaths of 3,000 soldiers from Napoleon's army
Every regional power has betrayed the Kurds so Turkish bombing is no surprise

Robert Fisk on the Turkey conflict

Every regional power has betrayed the Kurds so Turkish bombing is no surprise
Investigation into wreck of unidentified submarine found off the coast of Sweden

Sunken sub

Investigation underway into wreck of an unidentified submarine found off the coast of Sweden
Instagram and Facebook have 'totally changed' the way people buy clothes

Age of the selfie

Instagram and Facebook have 'totally changed' the way people buy clothes
Not so square: How BBC's Bloomsbury saga is sexing up the period drama

Not so square

How Virginia Woolf saga is sexing up the BBC period drama
Rio Olympics 2016: The seven teenagers still carrying a torch for our Games hopes

Still carrying the torch

The seven teenagers given our Olympic hopes
The West likes to think that 'civilisation' will defeat Isis, but history suggests otherwise

The West likes to think that 'civilisation' will defeat Isis...

...but history suggests otherwise
The bald truth: How one author's thinning hair made him a Wayne Rooney sympathiser

The bald truth

How thinning hair made me a Wayne Rooney sympathiser
Froome wins second Tour de France after triumphant ride into Paris with Team Sky

Tour de France 2015

Froome rides into Paris to win historic second Tour
Fifteen years ago, Concorde crashed, and a dream died. Today, the desire to travel faster than the speed of sound is growing once again

A new beginning for supersonic flight?

Concorde's successors are in the works 15 years on from the Paris crash
I would never quit Labour, says Liz Kendall

I would never quit party, says Liz Kendall

Latest on the Labour leadership contest
Froome seals second Tour de France victory

Never mind Pinot, it’s bubbly for Froome

Second Tour de France victory all but sealed
Oh really? How the 'lowest form of wit' makes people brighter and more creative

The uses of sarcasm

'Lowest form of wit' actually makes people brighter and more creative
A magazine editor with no vanity, and lots of flair

No vanity, but lots of flair

A tribute to the magazine editor Ingrid Sischy
Foraging: How the British rediscovered their taste for chasing after wild food

In praise of foraging

How the British rediscovered their taste for wild food