The institutional bias towards a university education is unfair on young people, says Spencer Mehlman 

I am not against universities. They are incredible places for learning, with some of the most interesting and enthusiastic teachers you could ever meet. For many young people they will be the “right” next step. But the drive towards university that omits the raft of valid alternatives enrages me. That’s categorically unfair on young people and, for me, borders on a national scandal.

One statistic has shocked me more than any other during my time working with young people who are looking at their future careers. It didn’t make much of a noise in the press, but I believe that it reveals the extent of the problem young people are facing.

It was revealed in a City & Guilds survey that showed that in careers discussions 75 per cent  of 14 to 19-year-olds had been told about university, while  only 49 per cent had been told about apprenticeships and 48 per cent about other vocational qualifications.

Who is to blame? I believe the genesis is from Tony Blair’s seemingly random pronouncement in 1999 that 50 per cent of 18 to 30-year-olds should experience higher education. No one has ever quite established why this 50 per cent target was so important, other than to note that it made for a choice soundbite.

Parents will base their advice on their own experience but university is no longer a guaranteed ticket to a great career”

Since then (and arguably before), schools have promoted university education as the premier destination for their leavers. Against a backdrop of hugely inflated costs and rising graduate unemployment, the result is drop-out rates of anywhere up to 29 per cent.

What makes this all the more reprehensible is that the churn towards university continues despite study after study suggesting that continued education and qualifications in other non-university settings provide similar benefits in terms of earnings, employment and longevity.

And it’s not just our schools that are institutionally-biased towards universities. Parents too are to blame – in our experience, only a small enlightened proportion advise their children against going to university, or even make themselves aware of the alternatives. I appreciate that parents will base their advice on their own experience and on historic views, but the goalposts have most definitely shifted and university is no longer a guaranteed ticket to a great career.

So what is so alluring about the supposedly honeyed substance of university education that keeps schools and parents relentlessly spooning it to our young people? I believe that it’s confusion; it’s the ghost of a generational memory from a time when university was inspiring, intellectually elitist and probably much more fun. It’s also the negative perception of vocational qualifications (“aren’t they for plumbers?”) that results in an anachronistic snobbery that blinds people towards an honest evaluation of all the options.

Shamefully, the university experience these days will cost many students more than £50,000 . . . an investment that comes against a backdrop of graduate unemployment of 19 per cent.

How can we get this vital message out to the young people? How can we get the scales to drop from the eyes of parents, schools, careers advisers, headteachers, politicians and educationists alike and create a platform for all young people to learn about all valid “next steps” after school or college? I’d love your thoughts.

Spencer Mehlman owns

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