Traditional degrees will not fill skills gap, says CBI

Apprentice Young people have different talents and learn in different ways argues the CBI

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The UK risks failing to close its "chronic skills gaps" by continuing to focus teenagers on the university "default route", say business leaders.

A growing demand for degree-level technical skills will not be met by traditional university courses alone, argues a CBI report.

Instead more young people should take shorter or part-time degrees and advanced apprenticeships, says the CBI.

Business Secretary Vince Cable welcomed the CBI's analysis.

"I agree with the CBI. A credible alternative to university is needed to help young people get the skills the economy needs", said Mr Cable.


The report, Tomorrow's Growth, predicts that by 2020 nearly half of all employment will be in "highly-skilled roles".

Meeting this challenge "rests on the extent to which we can widen gateways into skilled work and promote routes to higher skills that appeal to individuals for whom a degree may not be the best option", it argues.

In particular the authors say more young people should be encouraged to take technical and vocational courses which they say have long been undersold and should have parity of esteem with academic routes.

The report calls for better careers advice from an early age, and an end to the "information asymmetry" which "blights the system".

"What is now seen as the 'default route' of an undergraduate degree is not suitable for all, young people have different talents and learn in different ways.

"To become informed consumers, young people need access to better work inspiration from primary school on. We should aim to inspire but also be realistic, setting out the costs and likely return on the options open to young people, including the vocational options that have long been undersold."

The authors call for "a vocational Ucas system" with similar prominence and standing to the university entrance system.

This would provide "information on the full range of programmes available" and "improve visibility of these routes to young people".

They recommend more partnerships between colleges, universities and business to provide vocational training, with businesses expanding their commitment to high-quality training schemes such as apprenticeships, work-based training and fast-track schemes for school-leavers.

They urge universities to provide more "learn as you earn" education alongside traditional degrees. This would include employer-backed sandwich courses and more flexible degrees, "especially part-time ones".

The CBI's policy director Katja Hall said: "The UK needs to vastly increase the stock of workers with higher-level skills to drive long-term growth and stop us falling behind our competitors."

Start Quote

Universities must be much more innovative to take advantage of the change in students' approach. And we need businesses to roll up their sleeves and expand high-quality alternative routes. ”

End Quote Katja Hall CBI Policy Director

Ms Hall added that changes to the university finance system in England have meant that young people, facing tuition debts of £27,000 for a three-year course, are already becoming "savvier in shopping around for routes to give them the competitive edge in a tighter job market".

"Universities must be much more innovative to take advantage of the change in students' approach. And we need businesses to roll up their sleeves and expand high-quality alternative routes".

Uptake patchy

The report argues that there has been some progress but the uptake of apprenticeships is still "patchy and inconsistent".

It also urges the government to address the 40% drop in part-time undergraduate applicants in the past three years.

Mr Cable said the government was investing heavily to boost the number of apprentices.

He said it was introducing more than 40 new higher apprenticeship schemes in a range of subjects from advanced manufacturing to space engineering, "equivalent to getting a degree, but you're paid to train".

He added that the government had also set out plans "to get business and university to work together more".

Nicola Dandridge of Universities UK said: "We share the CBI's concern about the sharp downturn in recruitment to part-time higher education study and the impact on meeting the UK's skills needs".

A Universities UK review of part-time and mature higher education will report in October.


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  • rate this

    Comment number 251.

    Until there is a viable alternative, kids will keep going to Uni as a safer bet. Sure, they can try for an apprenticeship instead, but if that doesn't work what have they got to fall back on?

    Until employers take responsibility and spend money on training people rather than just hiring graduates 'fully formed' from uni, most people will go to uni rather than take the risk.

  • rate this

    Comment number 247.

    Too many people are writing off any university degree as useless, as a civil engineer there is no way i could be where I am now without my masters degree in civil engineering! Both my brothers entered their professions through the appreticeship route. I feel alot of negative comments about degrees come from a bitterness of having a worthless degree or the jelousy of not having one at all!

  • rate this

    Comment number 244.

    Employers of course want well-educated people, but even more they want people with common sense and a practical approach. All too often graduates are over-educated and unpractical, with little comprehension of what it takes to be a useful employee. We need many more to take the practical route.

  • rate this

    Comment number 88.

    As a small business owner, I value potential employees having practical skills far more than having a degree for the simple reason that our cash flow is often tight and we need people who can be quickly productive rather than training up a graduate from scratch.

    Many degrees are next to useless in this regard - they don't give young people a proper foundation for the working world.

  • rate this

    Comment number 50.

    It's all well and good saying that only doctors and lawyers need to go to uni, but where are other jobs going to get their staff from? Unless employers start training people on the job properly.

    Young people will have to learn skills somewhere, and it's either going to be at Uni doing a 'worthless' degree or the employer will have to take responsibility.


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