As the dust settles – or, perhaps, begins its descent – in the aftermath of the pandemic, many ‘unquestionables’ in the world of education are being targeted for debate. Not least of these is the destinations that students explore, and aspire to, beyond senior school.
It is without doubt that a place at university – particularly one from a list of the great and good – has been the default position. But should it remain that way? Has the world of work changed sufficiently that such a ‘pillar’ might tumble? These questions are by no means straightforward, but the pace at which they are being raised is quickening.
Samantha Price, head at Benenden School and Girls’ Schools Association (GSA) president, explains how she feels post-sixth form routes need revisiting. “I think we have reached the point where we need to acknowledge that a traditional university degree is not the only route for our brightest and best, whatever their background,” she says.
That alternative routes for some are worth considering has been in the air for some time, but that the “brightest and best” might look elsewhere is a sure-fire sign of shifting mentalities.
The problems and the alternatives
Price continues: “The extent to which universities may or may not offer value for money has been questioned for a number of years… Lingering student loan debt long into adulthood is a very real problem not only for individuals but also for the country as a whole.”
The question of the economic ‘return on investment’ of a university degree is becoming harder to defend. James Davies, headmaster at Halliford School, notes: “Families are examining the fiscal reality of that post-school ‘professional training period’. Would we prefer £40,000 of debt from that period, or a start towards savings from starting to earn?” With average debt beyond university standing at around £44,000, the commercial ‘ice’ is thin at best.
There is more to the criticism, however, than the monetary issues. As degree courses scramble to keep up with the pace of global change, questions about their relevance to the modern workplace are growing. Moreover, the standards of achievement and output from many degree courses – especially those somewhat embryonic in their development – has become something of an ‘elephant in the room’ in modern times; whether many are willing to admit it or not.
When one considers that many professionally required qualifications (eg ACA) sit outside degree courses, quantifying what a student ‘gets’ from university becomes a challenge. In a post-Covid world, there are also indications that some universities are attempting to function with as little in-person teaching as possible, which very few would likely relish.
As ever, to criticise is straightforward, but to propose a solution is rarely as easy. Are there comparable options for students outside of the traditional university framework?
Price believes so: “Growing numbers of young people are now considering apprenticeships and I do think that schools which have for years pointed their students towards traditional university degrees should take apprenticeships seriously. They provide immediate employability and industry training; some come with a built-in opportunity to acquire a degree or other qualification.”
Such schemes appear, moreover, to be appearing and evolving at a remarkable pace. “This isn’t a fad that one or two companies are doing,” notes Davies. “There is great latent desire in many firms – including the likes of PwC and Facebook, for instance – to think very carefully about their graduate intake and how they find the ‘next big thing’.”
From the Dyson Institute of Engineering and Technology to the Deloitte BrightStart scheme, many forward-thinking businesses are as aware of this need to attract the brightest and best as any university. If such schemes are making unapologetic advances towards those who might previously have been Russell Group in their aspirations, the question of the ‘quality’ of these alternatives might quickly evaporate.
The threat of overcorrection
So, why have independent schools continued to hold fast to pointing most of their students towards traditional university degrees? The answer to this is a vital point of balance – UK universities are some of the best and most respected in the world.
As importantly, the experience of being at university was, without question, the ‘coming of age’ for most of us reading these words. Socially, emotionally, culturally and intellectually we ‘grow up’ at university. Husbands and wives are met, best friends are made, the happiest and most fun days (and nights!) of our lives are often had there. All of this matters a great deal.
These are ‘life skills’ learned through safe trial and error that matter just as much to many an employer as the degree certificate. Confidence, independence of thought, social astuteness, intelligent communication: these are true 21st-century skills.
Moreover, the reputation of academic rigour at many of our universities is hard-earned and well-deserved. The academic grounding that many receive in their degree is the foundation of a hugely successful and rewarding career.
This debate needs to happen, and change should surely follow, but both words and actions alike must remain balanced and nuanced. As Price rightly counsels: “This isn’t a case of apprenticeships being ‘better’ than a traditional university degree. They are simply different, and it’s time we left behind a ‘one-size-fits-all’ mentality.”
Breaking the loop
It would be naive to think that higher-level, hybrid apprenticeships (ie where a degree is offered alongside work placement, or that university attendance is ‘sponsored’ by an employer) are ubiquitous, but informing families about what is there seems a crucial step.
Bill Penty, head at Trent College, adds: “University isn’t for everyone. If we’re doing our job right, as independent schools, we should be promoting a diversity of pathways. Let’s give people as much information as we possibly can so there is better awareness of the routes available.” Trent College, by way of example, run specific information events to ‘lift the veil’ on these alternative pathways, as much for parents as for their children.
Nevertheless, the front-line reality of managing parental expectations is that getting their child into a renowned university is significant currency, and unconscious bias abounds. Alternatives still carry stigma, and it is true that certain alternatives do not stack up to traditional degrees in terms of rigour and opportunities. But some do.
How, then, can independent schools break this ‘feedback loop’ of risking their own market when perception may not be ready for it? “The stigma has been that apprenticeships, etc are for those who can’t ‘get in’, let’s face it,” says Davies, “but the reality is that the competition to get onto quality apprenticeship schemes is just as fierce as the competition for places in Russell Group universities.”
The place to start, it would seem, is the education of parents themselves. Kathryn Gorman, head at Abbot’s Hill School, is as optimistic as she is realistic, saying: “Results are what parents are often buying. Even if they say they aren’t buying results, they are; but the market is turning away from the ‘rat race’ and people are looking at schools that are more reflective in tone.”
The head of careers at Abbot’s Hill, Liz Cross, adds: “We need to be educating parents about how the world of work is changing. Apple, Google, IBM, Ernst & Young: these companies aren’t necessarily requiring university degrees anymore. The younger generation of parents will increasingly start to see and value this.”
Here, a focus on the ‘person’ (rather than the ‘qualifications’) seems a point of potential alignment in managing expectations. “The soul is at the heart of the workplace more than it has ever been,” Gorman observes, “and that’s what our schools can and should provide.”
A place to start?
There can be very little doubt that a wider outlook for post-18 education or training should be a priority for the modern independent school. To achieve such a goal, however, will involve bravery on our part to challenge preconceptions, break stigmas and redefine success in 21st-century terms. “Collaboration between schools and business is where this should start,” concludes Davies.
“We all have parents who are significantly involved in business – and working towards what makes our students the best possible contributors to society, including the economy, is surely our raison d’être. Let’s start by bringing these together.”
If and how we, as a sector, move from ‘talk’ to ‘walk’ on this subject will be a defining feature of our offer to families for many years to come.
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