The university experience is, for many people, one that they will remember with great fondness throughout their lives. It is a time that affords young people the opportunity to live away from home, to engage with a diverse range of people, and to dedicate themselves to exploring a subject of their choosing. Moreover, entry into certain professions, such as medicine, of course requires that individuals have studied at university. The traditional context of higher education can be, therefore, both one of desire and necessity.
However, as has been widely publicised over the last few years, university in the UK now costs more than ever; with undergraduate fees typically totaling around £9000 per year, university students can expect to graduate with a minimum of £27,000 of debt. When accounting for living expenses as well, it would not be unusual for this figure to be twice as much. Although young people are, quite rightly, offered a range of loans, bursaries, and scholarships that should, in theory, allow anyone with the grades to go to university, the prospect of potentially accumulating around £50,000 of debt is understandably off-putting – especially since there is no guarantee of a job afterwards.
The increase in university fees in 2012 coincided with a 17% decrease in first year undergraduates. Conversely, demand for apprenticeships in recent years has increased significantly, with some figures suggesting that applications rose by as much as a third with the introduction of the new university fees. As a consequence, the demand for apprenticeship schemes now far outweighs supply; there are, on average, 12 applications for every position, and some training programmes have even more striking ratios, with, for example, 35 applications for every event promotion-based programme. With youth unemployment at close to a million, it is of little surprise that apprenticeships are in high demand.
In contrast to the massive amounts of debt that university students are likely to acquire, the training costs of those undertaking apprenticeships are covered by employers and individuals receive a wage for their contributions to the enterprise; a successful apprenticeship programme is an investment by the company in the apprentice. In addition to the financial incentives, there is the fact that apprentices can work towards the same level qualifications that undergraduates will be awarded. Indeed, apprentices who pursue accounting can actually achieve chartered accountancy status in less time than those who opted for university. Moreover, apprentices will also acquire work place experience, which can be difficult for university students, unless their course happens to involve a sandwich year or they are fortunate enough to be able to get relevant part-time or summer-based internships.
While university is, undeniably, for many a wonderful experience, and one that can lead to fulfilling careers, the respective increases and decreases in applications to university and apprenticeships are understandable given the cost of the former and the many benefits of the latter outlined here. Thus, although many will still opt for university, provided employers are willing to give young people a chance, the current generation of school-leavers is being defined by a revival of the apprenticeship model.