Vocation, vocation, vocation: The CBI is right, university is not for all

Some progress has been made, particularly with apprenticeships, but there is still a long way to go

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There are two widespread beliefs about education and training in Britain.

The first – which is correct – is that the country suffers from a skills shortage, which may retard economic growth and place home-grown applicants at a disadvantage when competing for jobs with better-trained newcomers. The second – which is not correct – is that the remedy is for ever more school-leavers to go on to university.

Now, in a welcome move, the CBI has added its voice to those questioning the emphasis on university to the exclusion of other options. It says that the focus on university as the “default route” is not the answer, and that rising demand for technical skills will not be met by traditional university courses. This is taken for granted by some of our near-neighbours, notably Germany, but the penny still does not seem to have dropped here. And so long as vocational training is seen as inferior to the traditional academic route, this unsatisfactory state of affairs will continue.

The CBI recommends that there should be more opportunities to take shorter or part-time degrees, coupled with work placements and apprenticeships. We agree. Some progress has been made, particularly with apprenticeships, but there is still a long way to go.

In suggesting how the status of vocational and academic education might be made more equal – something no government has ever managed, even when it has wanted to – it proposes not just much more part-time provision, but a system for entry to vocational courses on the model of Ucas for universities, with similar levels of preparation in schools. This will not, of itself, transform ingrained attitudes, but it is an idea that deserves to be acted on without delay.

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