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It's Time To Look At The Alternatives To University

17/08/2017 16:36 BST | Updated 17/08/2017 16:36 BST
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Too many people go to university in this country. This may not be a popular statement, or one which those getting their A-Level results today will want to hear, but it is true nonetheless.

Society teaches young people that to be successful you must go to university; that it is the fast track to earning lots of money. This is an incredibly easy message for UK universities to sell to eighteen-year olds, and one that is confirmed by society.

University simply isn't for everyone. It is supposed to be for the academically gifted; those who will go on to solve the greatest challenges society faces, and their achievements should be celebrated, today of all days. But is it not now time that we are honest with the next generation, who are making a £50,000 decision about their futures?

When I left school in the 1970s I didn't go to university. I got a Michelin tyre apprenticeship in Staffordshire, which at the time was roughly the equivalent to degree level. It gave me a solid understanding of engineering, business and heavy industry - the ideal platform I needed and a skill set that stood me in good stead for the rest of my career.

Vocational training slipped because of the push to send more people to university. The man we have to thank for that is Tony Blair - better qualified young people, who get high-paid jobs, and pay more tax is a great idea, but sending over half of this country's eighteen-year olds to university is not how you do it.

Jeremy Corbyn's vision of free university education, is also not the answer. Despite the policy's popularity with young voters, it is again peddling the lie that university is the solution to the UK's chronic skills shortage. This is aside from the fact that the proposition of free university education is economically illiterate and will unfairly impact the taxpayer. Why should those in work pay for their peers to study?

We are twenty years down the line and the pitfalls of Tony Blair's university policy are still not fully recognised. We now have a situation where the majority of graduates end up in non-graduate jobs. For those that graduated in 2015, the first year of students who paid £9,000 per year in tuition fees, over 50 per cent of them will have a mountain of student debt to pay off in a job which didn't even require a degree.

Worse still for those that have worked hard, paid their way through university, and come out the other side, is the devaluation of their degree. As a Press Association survey revealed in July, the proportion of top degree grades being awarded by UK universities has soared. We now have a situation where supposedly world-class universities are awarding over 40 per cent of their students a first-class degree.

As an employer, I want to be able to differentiate between those people who worked hard at university, and those that didn't. For me, degree classifications are no longer a trusted barometer of performance when so many students are awarded firsts.

Politicians need to face up to the reality that university is not for everyone. Moreover, politicians need to recognise that attitudes towards university are now doing more harm than good for the UK economy. We need to stop sending students for third-rate degrees, and burdening them with insurmountable debts for a piece of paper - young people deserve better.

We need to look at the alternatives. Increasing the number of apprenticeships available to school leavers would be a useful first step in popping the university bubble. But I think we need to be more creative than that.

At Phones4U, we provided opportunities in some of our stores for those wanting to experience the workplace, getting them used to a sales environment and providing key transferable skills which simply aren't learnt as part of a business degree at university.

Businesses need to be supported by the government, and rewarded for taking the plunge and hiring young, unskilled people who have great potential. These are the entrepreneurs of the future, and alternatives to university must be signposted from a young age.

We owe it to the next generation to make every possible provision for them to realise their dreams. If this is to be a doctor, lawyer, academic, or vet, then we must absolutely ensure that the UK maintains its reputation as a first class provider of university education.

However, it is not the only route to success and riches. School leavers receiving their A-level results today, and their parents, would do well to remember that there are alternatives, and to consider this vital question, do you really need to go to university?