Manifestos for Skills and Jobs or for Debt and Unemployment

The competition for the youth vote, with offers of free tuition fees to all subjects (Labour), or just for STEM subjects (as in the UKIP manifesto) are based on a world view that dates from the late 1960s, when belief in the value of three years at University had taken over from that of two years in the armed forces as a rite of passage. In 2010, when students were rioting against tuition fees, there remained a widespread assumption that “the middle class puberty rite of kicking the fledglings from the nest” had a unique value in helping adolescents  prepare for a world of change. Ian Brown, then at the Oxford Internet Institute, read my blog on confusing puberty rites with education and kindly put the text of the 1982 paper  from which I had quoted, on-line. I do not say he agreed with me. It was more likely that, with pundits once again claiming that robots and artificial intelligence would put us all out of work, he agreed the need to take a cool look at the assumptions behind our educational priorities.

The genesis of “Learning for Change” was an invitation from the late Donald Michie (one of the founders of Artificial Intelligence as a discipline) to deliver a paper to a gathering of the UK technical press of day on the implications for education of a world in which data processing, artificial intelligence and robotics had removed the status of the scholar: ” The possession of book-learning or logical reasoning ability will lose status just as literacy did when everyone could read and write. The human touches of sympathy and creativity will be the hallmark of the high status job.”   I was then asked by Chairman of the Bow Group to put the text into political context, with some recommendations for Government. The result sold out after a truly vitriolic review (whose text I cannot now find) in the Times Higher Education supplement. If you read “Learning for Change” you will see why it was so divisive – and remains so.

Today (and tomorrow) we need to look at the systemic disinformation being fed to children and parents, under the guise of careers advice, regarding the “value” of a University Degree”, as opposed to the value of a well structured apprenticeship,  particularly one linked to a modular degree and/or including the acquisition of globally recognised qualifications.

The value of degree  courses in improving earnings capacity varies as widely as the value of apprenticeships. The much quoted “average”  of #200,000 is from a BIS study , which compared with a control group of those leaving school with two or more A  levels, not with those who had chosen vocational qualifications instead of “A” levels”. There is clear evidence that the value of degrees (by subject and/or university) varies at least as widely as that of apprenticeships (by profession/trade and/or employer). The lifetime earnings of many graduates were below those of the control group average. No-one has done an exercise on the value of apprenticeships – and they would have to begin by defining what they mean – because the comparison of those who, for example, began their apprenticeship as a Chartered Accountant direct from school tend to be three years (or more if the graduate has taken a gap year) further up the management free at every stage. I recently heard of a school-leaver managing (at 21) the development of  graduate trainees older than herself, while being groomed for a senior management role (in the bank) by the time she is 30.

It would be wrong to go as far as the Harvard Business Review in saying “The Degree is Doomed” but the Economist is almost certainly correct in saying that it represents declining value . Not just in the US. Hence the reason leading UK public schools now record those obtaining graduate level apprenticeships with leading employers – for many of which competition is fiercer  than for places with Oxbridge or the Russell Group Universities.  The big difference is that those gaining such apprenticeship often collect globally recognised qualifications as well as a degree on the way and not only have no debt in their twenties but are three to four years further up the management tree with a premium that widens over time.

Waiving tuition fees, leaving graduates with only the borrowings to cover living costs, may win many tens of thousands of votes tomorrow but the expansion of graduate level apprenticeships will do far more to bridge skills gaps and get youngsters into well paid jobs. More-over the  student loan programme already has average interest rates and penalties for early repayment that mortgage borrowers are advised to avoid. If those who earn well above average are to be taxed more heavily to cover the cost of those who do not earn enough to be liable to repay …  The all-up cost of repaying student debt, even as reduced by the removal of Tuition Fees, means that the average value of a degree, even using the BIS measures, will have more than halved by the time this years “crop” of students has graduated.

It is far more important to work to open up the paths between non-graduate, graduate and post-graduate apprenticeships, with content and standards driven by employers not administrators or academics to ensure that all level of apprenticeship operate to world class standards.