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Apprenticeships Can't Fix the Glaring Inequalities in Our Education System

13/09/2016 16:24
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Last week, David Lammy wrote an important piece in the Guardian about the planned government cuts of between 25% and 55% of apprenticeships funding for 16 to 18-year-olds. Addressing skills minister Robert Halfon, he highlighted that the proposed cuts will hit the poorest hardest, with youth unemployment being affected and our economy suffering as a result. 55 Labour MPs have signed his letter; likewise, Labour Mayoral candidates Steve Rotheram and Andy Burnham have both made commitments to expanding technical education as part of their campaigns for 2017.

According to the government's own research the benefits of apprenticeships are astounding - a return of approximately £27 to the taxpayer for every pound invested in technical education - £7 more return than the average return on further education. Apprenticeships aimed at medium-skilled roles also fulfil a crucial role in growing the UK economy. Although the stereotypical apprenticeship may be in the construction sector, in 2015/16 it accounted for just 5% of apprenticeship starts, with the largest sectors being Business, Administration and Law at 28% and Health, Public Services and Care at 25%. The consensus is that more apprenticeships are desperately needed for our economy and for young people. The government has pledged to create 3 million apprenticeships by 2020, stating in its '2020 vision' that:

"our goal is for young people to see apprenticeships as a high quality and prestigious path to successful careers, and for these opportunities to be available across all sectors of the economy, in all parts of the country and at all levels"

Labour has also argued that in comparison to academia, apprenticeships are for young people in poorer areas an essential lifeline; giving opportunities to people who would not traditionally go to university to pursue successful careers. But by focussing on technical education as a medium of opportunity, Labour risks letting the Tories off for their greatest crime in government--placing financial barriers in the way of academic education by scrapping EMA and tripling tuition fees to a staggering £9000 per year, with further rises planned in the near future.

Thanks to the Cameron-Clegg coalition government, students whose parents can't foot the bills for university face loans of over £50 thousand to study an undergraduate degree, with costs rising to a whopping £75 thousand to complete a masters. Likewise, as a result of scrapping the Educational Maintenance Grant (EMA), fewer students from disadvantaged backgrounds will go to college and gain the qualifications to apply for those degrees.

While apprenticeships are absolutely crucial for young people and our economy, they should not be seen as a consolation prize to disadvantaged youngsters who have been financially locked out of the university route. There is every reason that kids with working class parents should have the same chance to go to university as everyone else - if they want it - and the same opportunity to pursue highly-skilled professions like medicine and law as those from privileged backgrounds.

To broaden the horizons of those born into poverty, it is important for Labour not to allow apprenticeships to be the scraps of opportunity handed down off the table, but to continually challenge the government to make academic education as accessible as apprenticeships for young people, regardless of their economic background. That means bringing back EMA or travel dispensation for school-leavers wishing to go to college in order to get the A-levels they need, and reducing the horrendous cost of tuition fees in the UK instead of perpetuating the cruel and unjust debts associated with going to university.

At first glance, student loans may seem like a fair way of paying back the costs based on your earnings after graduating, but they leave prospective students worried over the huge figures of debt involved and saddle them with its burden for the next few decades of their life. When it comes to a simple choice between 3 years of debt versus 3 years of income, young people without the financial backing of their parents are far more likely to choose the latter. Student loans may not directly prevent people from going to university, but they play a fundamental role in deterring the disadvantaged.

And while the perception of student loans is of enormous amounts of debt, they are actually an ineffective method of funding, with websites like Money Saving Expert stating that most people will not pay back the entirety of their student loans anyway. Why not therefore, instead of putting people through the psychological torment of student debt, fund university tuition through taxation on high earners regardless of whether or not one has been through higher education? That would make university a far more accessible route for young people, whilst ensuring that those who rise to highly paid positions in our society contribute to the next generation's success (the vast majority of whom will possess degrees).

It would also make higher education a much more attractive option to young people wishing to study in fields like nursing and midwifery. Following the scrapping of student bursaries for nursing and midwifery degrees by the government, there is to be an estimated 6% drop in healthcare applications across the UK. That is likely to be highly damaging to our NHS and with the competitive overseas market, more and more people will consider studying (and working) abroad rather than toughing it out in the UK to face a lifetime of debt. One immediate effect of scrapping the student loan system would be to revitalise our health service with attractive offers to those wishing to study nursing or midwifery.

Finally, it would make our society much fairer by opening up access into our legal and political systems, making them more representative. It is worth noting that as of 2010 84% of MPs had a university degree. Only five of our Prime-Ministers in history haven't had a degree; as of 2014, 15 MPs in Parliament had a staggering THREE university degrees, including Yvette Cooper, Tessa Jowell, Nick Clegg and Chukka Umuna--overall, 20 percent of MPs hold postgraduate degrees. Increasing the number of vocational qualifications accessible to young people, particularly those from poorer backgrounds, will not increase their numbers in Parliament, it seems. Nor will it increase the number of judges or economists coming from working class backgrounds. In order to make our society more representative, it is absolutely essential that apprenticeships are not seen as a solution for the poor.

For a large quantity of people who will go on to work in business, marketing, sales, plumbing, IT and many other professions, writing dissertations and attending lectures is a great waste of time and resources. There are also, by contrast, people who thrive in a university setting, reading journals, completing research papers or working in the laboratory. Financial background should be irrelevant in that choice. But thanks to Cameron, Clegg and now Theresa May, our education system is becoming more and more unequal. If the gap continues to widen we will soon see Britain returning to an aristocratic state, where an upper class of privileged upbringing rule over a working class who lack the same opportunities to access academic education.

High-quality apprenticeships across a range of sectors can not only improve the life chances of poorer people but also offer an alternative to university for all school-leavers, regardless of financial background, into a range of professions from accountancy to software development, sales and marketing to IT. However, it is absolutely essential that the academic route is opened once again to people from poorer backgrounds. We cannot condone a system where students are saddled with debts of tens of thousands of pounds any longer. For one thing, in the global economy, increasing numbers of students will leave the UK to study abroad, depriving our country of essential skills particularly within our health service. But additionally, an unequal access to university perpetuates the inequality in Parliament and our judiciary. In order to shape a fairer and more equal society, we must begin with a fairer and more equal access to education.

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