Apprenticeship stories in the wider media of late have made hay about young people turning their backs on university and instead considering vocational learning. However, as Lynne Sedgmore explains, such promotion of an ‘FE versus higher education’ divide could be doing more harm than good.

There has been a sudden spate of stories recently about apprenticeships and higher education, often based around thinly-evidenced claims that ‘many’ young people are now said to prefer apprenticeships to university.

It is good if, as they suggest, both young people and employers hold apprenticeships in higher regard than they did a few years ago and even better news if employers are offering more apprenticeship places at higher levels.  There is however something superficial about much of the commentary with a potential to do serious harm.

The first issue is that the choice posed — university or apprenticeship is highly artificial and arbitrarily restricted. Most apprenticeships are offered at level three or below, so the real alternatives for a potential apprentice are A-levels or a vocational study programme in FE.

Although it is rarely reported, the great majority of those not on the A-level route are in FE colleges learning valuable vocational skills and, under the new study programmes, college learning will routinely be linked with work experience.

It is in nobody’s interests to persuade young people who are capable of higher education not to engage

The choice for someone qualified to go into higher education is wide, but apprenticeships are only a small part of it. Higher apprenticeships are not an alternative to higher education — they should properly be seen as part of it, although they are still pretty rare.

The problem with almost all the press reports is that they conflate higher education with full-time courses at university and miss the wide range of provision in FE colleges — full and part-time foundation degrees, higher diplomas and professional qualifications.  Much of this provision is strongly vocational with clear links to employment.

The second big issue is that it is in nobody’s interests to persuade young people who are capable of higher education not to engage; through a higher apprenticeship if they want and can find one, but otherwise through one of the many other options.

Any analysis of the labour market will show that it is high level jobs that are growing most quickly and are most important for future economic growth. It is wrong to encourage anyone capable of studying at HE level to settle for less and foolish to undermine the motivation of those seeking to gain the prerequisites for higher education entrance.

We need to reflect on which institutions would be damaged if significant numbers of well-qualified candidates turned their back on higher education

Commentators need to reflect on who is most likely to be influenced by the continual implication that higher education is not an appropriate aspiration for many. It won’t be those from families with several generations of higher education experience and a clear understanding of its benefits.  It is far more likely to be those for whom higher education in any form is a step into the unknown; already seen as more risky because of the scale of student debt.

Sowing generalised doubts about the benefits of higher education on the basis of little more than anecdote could set back the widening participation agenda and undermine social mobility.

Finally, we need to reflect on which institutions would be damaged if significant numbers of well-qualified candidates turned their back on higher education.

It wouldn’t be members of the Russell Group or other high status universities. It would be precisely those institutions with a widening participation mission, and ironically those FE colleges that have quietly built deep and close links with local employers.  There is a risk of the legendary ‘double whammy’ if higher education recruitment faltered at the same time as patient work to encourage aspiration in those from non-traditional backgrounds was undermined.

It is possible that this crop of stories was just silly season froth that will evaporate once results are out and choices have been made. Let’s hope so.

There does need to be a debate about the choices available to young people, but it needs to be considered, evidence-based and cover the full range of options available to them rather than a headline grabbing sound bite.

Lynne Sedgmore, executive director of the 157 Group