University is just one pathway for our school leavers

By Elizabeth Anderson

We live in a bubble.  By which I mean, I suspect the majority of people who read this blog will be degree educated, politically active (or at least politically aware), and more likely than not, in or around London.  For us, a bachelors or even a masters is a given – it’s quite simply what people do.  With the A Level results out last week, it was correctly stated that more young people than ever are off to University.

But stop a second.  Based on 2016 data, FullFact explain that “33% of all 18 year olds in England were accepted into a university place in 2016”.  That means that 67% were not.  Prior to final data, we can assume that the data won’t have changed too much this year.

So two thirds of school leavers are not going into university.

I, for one, do not see a particular problem with this – not everyone in the country wants to go to University.  They may not have academic interests or academic talents, they may decide that a degree in a soft subject isn’t the best use of their money, they may not want to be hounded by student debt, they may have other interests – or, like I did, they might have plenty of UCAS points but want to work first and then study – I worked full time whilst taking a ‘full time’ BSc, and then took a Masters.  There is also the very real fact that not everyone wants to be a policy analyst at a think tank in London, or a top lawyer, or an architect – we have a fantastically mixed economy and there are jobs to fill at every level.

What we must consider though, is how do we help the prospects of the 67% of people who are not going to University?

Firstly, we absolutely must build on and celebrate technical and vocational education.  These skills are vital, but they are not given the profile of a university education.  Choosing a vocational career is not ‘failing’, but surely for anyone with disappointing results realising that the clearing pages aren’t for them, it must feel like it.  In highlighting the success of following an academic path (which we should, because it’s a major achievement), we attach a stigma to those who don’t want to or simply can’t take that road.  Which, again, is the majority of people.

And secondly we must build ambition.  A girl of 18 who flunks her A Levels and decides her way forward is hairdressing has not failed at life.  Because she’s 18.  There are still so many opportunities.  We must instil in young people the feeling that there is still so much more to achieve.  That may be through evening classes and foundation degrees, but it might also be just purely through hard work.  Every job is a stepping stone.  Why should she not work incredibly hard and become an award winning hair designer with clients across the globe?  No reason at all, a degree isn’t going to help her do that.  But that’s not really the message we send out.  And we must.

Some schools of course do, some parents do.  But celebrating success at going onto University must only be one part of the picture.  At government level, as party representatives, and purely as the generation who have been through the whole path of transitioning to adulthood, we need to be there to work with the 67% who are now considering what they are going to do now.The government should consider that those people are looking for a path to follow, and a political party to vote for that wants to support them into work, and to build and grow and achieve.

The majority of people want to feel approved of.  They don’t want to feel like they are the people who didn’t manage, who didn’t make it.  And if we can celebrate their next steps, their move into adulthood, the might feel that their life holds potential and opportunity.  They’ll maybe want to work harder, rather than opting for benefits.  And we will grow more talent, more commitment, and perhaps a whole new breed of excellence.

Elizabeth Anderson is Head of Membership for Parliament Street

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