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A Level results: are academic education routes still making the grade?

Posted on 20 August 2018 by Amy Smith, Bids Manager .
Tags: academia, degree, education, school, schools, teaching, universities, young people

Thousands of young people across the country are now making important decisions about their future. Many will go onto university but apprenticeships and other vocational routes have become more prominent in recent years.

NatCen’s British Social Attitudes (BSA) survey data shows that between 1995 and 2016 there has been a marked reduction in those who agree that getting a degree is a worthwhile investment (53% in 1995 versus 42% in 2016). At the same time, there has been an increase in the number of people who think young people should pursue vocational pathways to learn on the job such as apprenticeships. Whilst more people (39%) still think academic educational routes are the best choice, 27% would now recommend full time vocational study or learning on the job to a young person instead. The remainder stated that their recommendation would vary depending on the person or circumstances.

When I was completing my university applications back in 2007, apprenticeships were not an option I was even aware of. The vast majority of my friends either went to university or in some cases straight into work. Although tuition fees had recently increased from £1,000 to £3,000 per year, university still seemed like the most obvious route to securing a ‘good job’, even if it meant I ended up with £20,000 of student debt that I will be paying off for the foreseeable future! In spite of this I don’t regret my decision, as I’ve been very lucky to have forged a career that is relevant to my degree, but some of my friends have since questioned whether university was the right choice for them.

Now that tuition fees have tripled again to £9,000+ per year and many student maintenance grants have been scrapped, alongside the impact of a saturated graduate job market, the case for going to university is less clear cut for many students, particularly for those from less affluent backgrounds. Although under the new system, graduates do not have to pay back their loans until they are earning a salary of over £21,000, the average student now graduates with a staggering £50,000 of debt.

In contrast, there is an ever increasing awareness and availability of vocational routes for young people, particularly following the recent introduction of the Apprenticeship Levy in 2017, which is now paid by all large employers to fund work based training. Prior to this there had already been a substantial rise in the number and quality of apprenticeships, creating a diverse pool of opportunities for students to work and study at the same time. Indeed, here at NatCen, we have been offering apprenticeships for a number of years.

There has been a particular increase in the number of Degree and Higher Apprenticeships since these were introduced in 2015 (400+ per cent increase since the start of the 2017/18 academic year), and level 4+ Apprenticeships now make up one in five of the total apprenticeship starts. Degree Apprenticeships are now available in a diverse range of prestigious careers including engineering, accounting, law, nursing and other healthcare roles which previously required a traditional university degree.

It seems that whilst university is still a more popular choice for young people overall, there has been a tangible shift in support from academic towards vocational education routes. It will be interesting to monitor whether this trend continues in future BSA surveys.

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