Arts, society & culture

Mind the gap

The increase in numbers attending university in many countries has not necessarily equaled a reduction in the skills gap in certain sectors. Should more people be turning to apprenticeships and other vocational-training options instead of undergraduate degrees? Abi Millar finds out.

In 1999, then UK prime minister Tony Blair made a pledge. He said he wanted half of all school leavers to go onto university – not surprising for a politician who had built his election manifesto around the words ‘education, education, education’. At the time, around 39% of young people were in higher education, up from 14% at the end of the 1970s.

More than 20 years later, that pledge has been fulfilled. Figures for 2017/18 show that 50.2% of 17-30 year-olds had been to university, a fractional but symbolically significant increase on the year before. This growth is expected to continue, despite the fact tuition fees now stand at a hefty £9,250.

The figures are similar in Australia, where 41% of 19-year-olds were enrolled in higher education as of 2016. In Canada, the number of adults with college or university qualifications grew from 48.3% in 2006 to 54% in 2016. And in sub-Saharan Africa, about 9% of young people are in tertiary education, more than double the figure from the start of the century.

For Tony Blair, who described education as ‘the greatest liberator of human potential there is’, a growth in student numbers was directly tied to a better skilled workforce. Through promoting equality of opportunity, he wanted to shape a workforce ideally suited to the emerging ‘knowledge economy’.

“In today’s world, there is no such thing as too clever. The more you know, the further you’ll go,” he said.

Unfortunately, this hope hasn’t entirely come to pass. In the UK, as in many other countries, the workforce is simultaneously overqualified and underskilled, with the boom in university degrees co-existing with a well-documented skills gap. It’s almost a cliché to talk about the person with a humanities PhD who goes on to work in a coffee shop.

According to a 2018 study by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), 28% of graduates in England have jobs that don’t require a degree – double the average for OECD countries. At the same time, many sectors (notably those in STEM fields) suffer from a serious lack of trained staff.

For instance, the NHS in England is facing a shortfall of more than 100,000 people – a gap projected to grow to almost a quarter of a million by 2030. These staff shortages could lead to longer waiting lists and deteriorating quality of care.

“There are 43,000 nurse vacancies in the NHS in England, which is more than there’s ever been before,” says a spokesperson for the Royal College of Nursing. “The biggest factor contributing to this decline is the removal of the NHS student bursary in 2017, which has meant a drop in the number of people applying for nursing courses and people leaving as well.”

Brexit is likely to exacerbate this situation. Between July 2017 and July 2018, 1,584 more EU nurses and health visitors left their roles in the NHS than joined. According to the Liberal Democrats, Brexit will cost the NHS an additional £60m a year in fees to recruit doctors and nurses from abroad. However, the RCN spokesperson points out that Brexit hasn’t happened yet, and we should be cautious about making sweeping claims.

The engineering sector is facing similar issues. According to EngineeringUK, there is an estimated annual shortfall of 59,000 engineers with skills at level 3 and above, and a shortfall at graduate level of 22,000. Restrictions on the flow of engineering talent between the EU and the UK are likely to make the situation even worse.

“The UK is experiencing a persistent engineering skills shortage that threatens its future position as a leading nation for industry and innovation,” says Tom Gunter, education policy advisor at the Royal Academy of Engineering. “The reason originates within the education system. There is a precipitous fall in engagement with STEM subjects after GCSE.”

He adds that, while the demand for traditional engineering skills is growing, the other issue is digitisation, which is changing the skill mix required.

“The fourth industrial revolution is driving increased demand for software systems engineers, data scientists and roles in automation, energy and artificial intelligence,” he says. “The uptake of industrial digital technology requires a workforce equipped with the necessary skills, but many businesses, particularly SMEs, are not in a position to upskill or reskill their workforce.”

It’s hard to resist the conclusion that the UK’s education system and its labour market are fundamentally misaligned. And this mismatch is unlikely to be rectified simply by increasing student numbers.

Not Going To Uni, a jobs board for school and college leavers, was started in 2008 to help applicants realise the opportunities that lie outside a university route. While they aren’t anti-university, they seek to point up the benefits of apprenticeships, degree apprenticeships, gap years, traineeships and jobs.

“We have seen many changes over the 12 years we have been running, the main one being the rise of unconditional offers to universities and therefore the decline in certain areas of non-university routes,” says the website’s Lewis Scott. “This has led to an increase in the skill gap. Those who finish university and then go into work aren’t necessarily given the best skills to compete with their more experienced colleagues.”

He adds that, while there will always be some careers that require a degree, many courses have been created purely to bring funds to the university. They certainly don’t teach the skill set that employers are looking for.

“I think the governments of the past three or four years have realised this and looked to improve the apprenticeship sector,” he says. “Increased funding to companies in regards to taking on apprentices has encouraged companies and opened their eyes to the possibilities that apprentices can bring.”

The UK government’s apprenticeship levy, introduced in April 2017, was designed to create 3 million apprentices by 2020. Essentially, it is a tax on larger companies that can be claimed back for apprenticeship training. However, the purported benefits haven’t come to pass, with the number of apprenticeship starts in 2017/18 dropping by more than a quarter.

There has been a widespread call for further reforms. In fact, one 2017 study, by the Close Brothers Business Barometer, suggested that 82% of the UK’s SMEs feel that apprenticeships are the solution for closing the STEM skills gap. More than three quarters of business owners agreed that apprenticeships are a valuable alternative to university – although 22% said they couldn’t afford to run an apprenticeship scheme themselves.

Especially for an industry like engineering, vocational routes play a key role in training the next generation. The government does appear to be taking this seriously, with a new technical qualification, T-levels, being launched in September this year.

“The vast spectrum of engineer and technician roles needed to support the UK economy requires a mix of skills, and the government’s reforms should lead to a clearer landscape of technical education,” says Gunter. “A-levels and a university degree are not the only route into engineering, and technical and vocational education can open additional doors into the profession.”

To look beyond the UK, one country with a strong track record in apprenticeships is Australia. Here, apprenticeships are employer-led, and nonprofits are used to match apprentices with companies. These nonprofits, called Group Training Organisations, provide opportunities for employers that can’t support the apprentice for the full term of their training, and are widely used by SMEs.

Within Europe, the undisputed king of apprenticeships is Germany. Since apprentice wages are quite low, smaller businesses can afford to take on apprentices. However, they are expected to provide high quality training in return, treating their apprentices more like students than employees.

Around 60% of school leavers go through the Dual System, working part-time in the workplace and part-time at a vocational school. The upshot is that unemployment among young people is very low. We see a similar story in Switzerland, where around two thirds of young people undertake apprenticeships.

It’s no wonder that the US is looking to Europe for inspiration. In 2014, former President Barack Obama pledged to double the number of apprentices from 375,000 to 750,000 by 2019. Since then, the numbers have grown, with 585,000 apprentices as of 2018. However, the country has some way to go before the German model catches on – only 17% of American students have worked in an apprenticeship or internship related to their goals.

It seems clear that non-degree routes can benefit the labour market, ensuring the links between training and the workforce are watertight. Beyond that, it’s obvious that vocational training can benefit the trainees themselves.

“We see a lot of success stories from those who choose the apprenticeship route,” says Scott. “It’s simple really – with an apprenticeship, there is learning on-the-job with experienced colleagues as well as being taught and guided within an educational environment. As well as this, they’ll be earning a salary and get a qualification on top of all that. This sets the apprentice up with the skills, in the best possible environment to have a successful career.”

This article appears in the Mar-May 2020 edition of Overseas magazine

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