David Cameron has vowed to tackle "snobbery" against vocational education and make apprenticeships an attractive and rewarding alternative to university for young people.
The Prime Minister accused the previous Labour administration of a "tragic betrayal" of youngsters who opted for vocational study and were enrolled on weak courses which wasted their time and taxpayers' money.
And he said that, while ministers focused their efforts on boosting numbers of students at university, the route to meaningful practical learning was left "confusing and incomplete".
In a speech during a local election campaign visit to Cumbria, Mr Cameron said it was "dangerous nonsense" to suggest that academic study in the classroom was always a better route to success than learning on the job - citing companies like Rolls- Royce, where half of board members began their careers as apprentices.
Doing an apprenticeship should be "one of the best gateways to university-level study", said Mr Cameron.
By 2015, he wants almost 20,000 young people a year to be taking degree-equivalent Higher Apprenticeships in sectors like aerospace and renewable energy, which he said offer "an alternative route to university that's just as open to success".
"Economic flexibility and social progress depends on there being a choice of excellent academic courses and strong vocational education, so we need a proper pathway for both," said Mr Cameron.
"And the way to do that is to give young people a really clear view of what's possible.
"For years, politicians who have cared about social mobility have argued it is important children from low-income backgrounds get to university.
"That's absolutely right and needs to be done.
"But we shouldn't underestimate the importance to social mobility of a really strong system of vocational education and apprenticeships.
"These too can take people from disadvantaged backgrounds to the boardrooms of the finest and most respected companies in the land."