Apprenticeships may not cut the mustard - let young people dream and go to university

EDITOR'S BLOG: The CIPD says grads are overqualified - but they're the ones choosing to be.

by Matthew Gwyther
Last Updated: 22 Dec 2015

After A level angst and GCSE teeth-gnashing comes graduate-bashing. The CIPD announced yesterday that graduates are way overqualified for most of the jobs they are likely ever to get.

We all suspect productivity in the UK is in a sorry old state and grads flipping burgers is one sorry sign of this. The CIPD moral of this tale that more youngsters should think twice about an expensive and ultimately fruitless trip to university when they could be learning how to lay bricks. Well, yes. But.  

After the anguish of their teens being endlessly tested and swotting for exams why shouldn’t 18-21 year olds have a right old laugh for three years - getting shit-faced nightly on Jägerbombs, attending the odd lecture and maybe staying up all night once or twice to discuss the meaning of life? Who knows they might mature quite a lot and arrive in the world of work rather more grown up. And after all - apart from those fortunate souls north of the border for whom higher education is a birthright not to be taken away by milk-snatching Thatcherites - young people are paying for the privilege themselves.

One of the main reasons for making young people pay for their university education was to  make them think carefully about the value of what they were investing in. Thus a market was supposed to be created, and if the BA in Media Studies at the University of Croydon didn’t get you a job as a fast track trainee at HM Treasury then it should wither and die. Or something like that. This market is taking some time to form and the screams of protest when an ex-poly implodes extends beyond the NUT’s annual conference.

I think there’s something subtler going on in the UK. And, as is frequently the case, it’s a class issue. Before they were done away with by Shirley Williams, secondary moderns were where large numbers of working class kids were separated off at the age of 11, while those more academically inclined  - and with a greater ability to pass exams aided by pushier parents - went off to grammar school. Those on the left and some on the right believed this to be highly socially divisive. Hence the introduction of comprehensive education and the continuing fact that not even a 21st century Tory government dare bring back grammar schools by allowing new ones that select on grounds of ability.

Precisely the same parental motivations that sent kids to grammar schools apply when discriminating between apprenticeships and university. Apprenticeships, despite all the cheerleading from BIS and the CIPD downwards, are still regarded by many as a second class route into adulthood. They don’t think like this in Germany, where apprenticeships are perfectly respectable, indeed desirable, when you have to have a PhD in Behavioural Science before you can get a job as a junior underling in an HR department. And thus join the CIPD.

Never mind what you might term social snobbery: there are sound economic arguments for university, too. As the London School of Economics argues, it makes very sound financial sense to take a degree if you want a higher paid job. Back in 1963 only one in every 100 people went to university. Now 40% of young people enrol for degrees. Despite this massive increase in supply the wage premium for graduates still hold strong. The LSE says that earnings for degree holders compared to those with A levels alone are between £105,000 and £250,000 over a lifetime. Clearly there are entrepreneurial types whose dyslexia led to frustration and disaster at school and went onto make millions and create jobs without a degree. But such types are the exception to the norm, more’s the pity.

Last night I had supper with a friend who works for a posh kitchen company. The kind of outfit with whom you need to spend a minimum of 60 grand to construct something to house your dishwasher and put in a cat flap. They are currently run off their feet. One ex-footballer is giving them a very hard time at the moment over the positioning of his extractor fan.

The vast majority of their installation work is done by Poles, Lithuanians and Bulgarians. The best of these can now command £250 a day. However, these days they have been joined, according to my mate, by a few ‘Tarquins and Freddies.’ Would be floppy-haired bourgeois artisans who may have dropped out after an art school foundation, but are actually furniture ‘makers’ at heart. Some of them can just about put together a dovetailed joint if given the time. This must make the CIPD very happy.

In the end I believe in freedom to choose. Funnily enough I trust the young - who are routinely belittled and dealt a rough hand, especially when it comes to somewhere to live - to decide for themselves what they should do post-school. If they fancy being a brickie in the pouring rain making a luxury riverside flat for a Chinese or Russian investor to park some offshore cash, then fine. Many, however, will dream of something beyond this. Some of those dreams will be dashed. Others may come true.

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