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Is University the only way?

8 August 2018

The nerves and excitement bubble up and collide this week as young people and their families in Scotland receive their exam results. One small tear of an envelope or beep of a text and the future that young people are planning can feel illuminated or potentially dimmed.  Whichever way it goes there is always a way forward and plans for the future can progress.

It is essential for us all to remember it is not make or break. The step you choose to take now does not define your whole career but is a stepping stone to the next opportunity. There are different routes to the same destination, some slower and some faster - but none are wrong. 

Research undertaken by Developing the Young Workforce in the Lothians has highlighted a mismatch in public and parental awareness of the options and the reality nowadays of what employers require and indeed what each offer our young people.  This is probably a direct result of the changing higher education landscape over the last generation. 

In the early 60s only 4% of school leavers went to University. This had risen to 14% by the end of the 70s, and now sits around 40%.  The number of academic institutions and courses have also increased.  The top five most popular subject areas for students in 2015-16 were: Business and Administrative Studies; Subjects allied to Medicine; Biological Sciences; Social Studies; and Creative Arts and Design. By contrast the largest areas of growth and demand by employers in Edinburgh, Midlothian and East Lothian 2017-27, and therefore the opportunities, have been identified as: Tourism, Hospitality, Distribution and Retail (89,600 jobs); Financial Business and Administration Services (32,900); Health and Social Care (27,400); and Education (21,500).  

Interestingly this increase in the number of young people attending university has not been matched by a similar increase to the number of jobs requiring a university qualification.  Nowadays 52% of graduates in Scotland are in jobs that don't require qualifications from Higher Education or Further Education establishments and 28% of university leavers move into non-professional roles. 10% of these are in sales and customer service, which is unsurprising given the areas of opportunity already identified. 

Given the popularity of Business and Administration as an area of study it is the earning potential of the alternative routes available to young people which may be more unexpected.  Graduates may find that even if they work in an associated role it may not be one that requires a degree.  Typically 34% of Business and Administration graduates will be in this situation.  The average salary for a professional role in this area for a graduate is currently £18,000. This compares with the salary a school leaver would typically receive from the Scottish Government for a Business Administration Modern Apprenticeship, which is £18,392 a full 4 years before a graduate would start to earn.

The barrier to this opportunity, we believe, is generational and is based on what apprenticeships mean to those whose children are currently making career choices. Modern Apprenticeships and Graduate Apprenticeships now provide economically interesting options to reach the same earning and qualification potential.  An additional benefit is that this earning is at a time when those who choose the university route are typically accruing debt.  We need to remember that whilst university fees in Scotland are set at zero it does not equate to a zero cost option, unless the child lives at home. The earning and learning option of an apprenticeship is an attractive alternative when the cost for rent in our major Scottish cities could easily amount to £6,000 per year before living costs. 

On speaking to businesses they are clear that first and foremost they need to recruit young people with attitudes and attributes such as resilience, enthusiasm and creativity. They are not selecting simply on the basis of academic ability. These soft skills, it could be argued, are gained in the workplace or through vocational learning more quickly.  

With this in mind, no matter what the results have been, young people have never had as many opportunities to find a route that works for them. It may be university, college, an apprenticeship or a working gap year exploring opportunities.  Each can create an important first step for the career they are about to embark on. 

For parents who wish to see the variety of options available visit: