A Cruel and Divisive Choice

The Times Higher Education Supplement : THE, May 5, 2016 | Go to article overview

A Cruel and Divisive Choice


Shutting apprenticeships to graduates is unfair to young people and employers both, argues Philip Cowan

If it is the UK government's intention to reinstate the old division between working with your hands and working with your mind, it has come up with the perfect solution.

The decision to greatly expand the number of apprenticeships on offer but to in effect exclude university graduates from taking one up presents school-leavers with a stark choice. The temptations of university - free time, lots of people their own age and interesting things to learn - are set against the prospect of debt-free training for work. It is like some fiendish mass psychological experiment to divide everyone into two distinct classes, along the lines previously defined by attendance of grammar schools versus secondary moderns.

Eager to claw back what they can from the apprenticeship levy that all big employers are being obliged to pay, firms will battle for the hearts and minds of young people every bit as vigorously as universities. Marketing, advertising and PR will be the true winners.

If a young person is keen on a particular profession and there is an opening for an apprenticeship in that line of work, it would seem sensible to take that opportunity. Hence, universities are going to have to focus more on employment. That might seem an entirely good thing, but any institution has only limited funds, and the more it focuses on employability the less it can invest in the teaching and learning that is its raison d'être.

My own subject and former profession, journalism, is a good example of how apprenticeships are disrupting the conveyor belt of students from school into university. Publishers and editors have always been reluctant to make journalism a graduate profession, even though the vast majority of those now entering newsrooms are indeed graduates. The main reason is financial - having to pay a graduate salary is not something that cost-conscious publishers want to do when there are so many keen to enter the profession. But I suspect that there is also an element of inverted snobbery - the golden age of British journalism (whenever that was) did not involve the most educated of minds.

Apprenticeships in journalism - and related sectors including social media - are growing fast, with big media names such as the BBC, ITV and Sky all taking on apprentices. …

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