Back in 1999, as part of the drive towards a “Knowledge-Based Economy” Tony Blair set a target to get 50% of all young people to University. This initiative has continued to embed in society, creating a false mantra that University is the best and most worthwhile path writes Mia Rees.
For some young people it is: University can give them skills, experiences, challenges and a higher level academic qualification which enhances and improves their life. But for others it can delay their entry into their career by 3 years, incur significant debt and add little to their employment prospects or wider life. This downside of an arbitrary 50% target is an uncomfortable fact that too many educationalists have chosen to ignore. Academic snobbery identifies with those who go to university – like their teachers did before them – and dismisses the rest. This attitude needs to change.
In Wales education remains compulsory up to the age of 16 but 88% of young people choose to stay in education full time until they are 18. 45% of young people continue in school Sixth Forms and 55% go on to colleges of Further Education. However, 15.4% of our young people aged 19 to 24 are not in any form of training, education or employment, the highest rate in the UK.
The Welsh Government has not adopted T-levels which offer a mix of theoretical classroom based learning with industry placements with local employers. However, we have a strong and varied college system which provides a range of subjects and qualifications for young people to engage with academic and technical disciplines. Many of these opportunities allow young people to experience the world of work, and earn whilst they study acquiring useful skills for a future job in growing, exciting sectors. The T-level model is new and therefore has not been fully scrutinised, but the very existence of the qualification shows clear intent.
Despite the options they provide Colleges in Wales are not being encouraged to support young people to reach their true potential because policy makers are too consumed with the mantra that University education is universally better. Money follows mantra and this means that Wales is letting down bright, creative young people who could achieve if only they were encouraged onto pathways that were right for them rather than what their school thinks looks good on open days.
Apprenticeships are part of the answer. They are good for young people, business and the economy. Apprenticeships in Wales are offered at a range of levels and cover a huge variety of sectors, fostering respect and independence. The Welsh Government has done some interesting things with apprenticeships over the years including making them open to anyone over 16 (with no upper age limit) and introducing degree apprenticeships. But they are still seen as the second class option.
At this point I want to be clear that I am talking about young people and the pressure to go to University straight from school, regardless of whether it is the right option for them. I am not saying that a University education doesn’t add value and as a supporter of lifelong learning I want access to all educational routes improved for people of all ages. If it is right for you to take on a degree mid-career then there should be a flexibility to do this. It should not be a decision you have to make at 18.
The creation of a new curriculum in Wales, and the work of our colleagues over the border, should be seen as an opportunity for Welsh Conservatives to rewrite the narrative. You don’t need to have a degree to thrive, after school or later in life. To thrive you need to know all the options available and make the best decision for you.
The Conservative Party is the party of opportunity, and therefore we should encourage and support young people to take the best steps for them. Once your time at school is done University is a natural step for some but for others it is a step they feel obliged to take because it is held up by schools, parents and society as the default “best path”. It often isn’t.
Cllr Mia Rees is a Conservative Councillor for Whitchurch & Tongwynlais on Cardiff Council.