A University Degree Vs Vocational Training: Which one to choose?


In recent decades it has become almost de rigeur for young people to go onto higher education, and 2013, according to UCAS figures, saw the highest uptake ever recorded with almost 50% of students going on to university. However, although it’s long been a government objective to reach this level of university attendance, there’s a school of thought which says that the UK is now educating too many young people to degree level and that those same youngsters, and the job market, would be better served by a greater focus on vocational training. We examine the pros and cons of pursuing a university degree or a course of vocational training.

Is a university degree essential?

Much is, of course, down to personal choice, career aspirations and talent. Some students are clearly suited to the academic route of a university degree, and if they have a specific career in mind which demands this level of qualification, then they should of course receive every encouragement to follow their chosen path. Where things become less clear is for those students who enter higher education without a specific career goal in mind, but simply with the belief that a degree will open doors for them once they enter the job market, as recent studies now suggest that this may no longer necessarily be the case. Research published last month by the Institute for Public Policy Research shows that there are now more graduates in the UK than there are high-skilled jobs available for them. Moreover, with forecasts for the next 10 years predicting that only a third of new jobs will be high-skilled roles for graduates, yet with university attendance set to increase further following the government’s removal of the cap on university places, the threat of a skills mismatch looming in the labour market starts to become apparent.


Is a greater focus on vocational training the solution?

In the coming years many workers in the UK’s agricultural and construction industries, where vocational qualifications are in demand, are set to retire. Coupled with this, growth in the health and social care sectors seems certain as we struggle to take care of an ageing population. It’s an issue which government is certainly taking seriously, with skills minister Matthew Hancock promising a reform in vocational training to ensure it is “rigorous and responsive to employers’ needs”. So, while vocational qualifications have sometimes been seen by some as less valuable than a university degree, the tide may be turning. What’s more, students should keep in mind that going down the more practical vocational route doesn’t necessarily preclude them from gaining a degree. The availability of apprenticeships is on the increase, creating many opportunities to continue studies at the employer’s expense whilst gaining valuable on-the-job training and experience. Indeed, government figures reveal that 20 per cent of Advanced Apprentices enter higher education within a few years of completing their apprenticeships. The benefits of this route are twofold: the apprentice can gain qualifications which are relevant to their particular role – which must surely be preferable for both employer and employee – and they can do so without burdening themselves with student debt, which amid rising tuition fees is an increasingly important consideration for many young people.
vocational training?

Best of both worlds?

On the flipside, employers are increasingly requesting a greater element of vocational training be introduced alongside academic studies, something which many universities are now responding to, one example being vocational training for medical students to prepare them more thoroughly for responsibilities like dealing with patients or managing staff.

So what can we conclude from all of this research and the shifting demands of the UK job market? It’s clear that vocational training is no longer the poor relation of the university degree. Rather, it is filling a gap which a university education is not necessarily covering when it comes to equipping young people for the workplace. Combinations of the two are more and more sought after by employers in order to produce new workers with a more rounded skill set who are better prepared for all of the demands of the roles they are taking on. But perhaps the most important lesson of all is that young people need to be provided with a greater understanding of the variety of options available to them and should shake off any preconceptions that vocational training can only lead them to a second-class career. On the contrary, it can lead to valuable, lucrative and fulfilling professions.

BBC Active video for learning offers a wide range of video resources which provide a valuable accompaniment to both vocational training and degree courses, ranging from business awareness, health and safety and engineering to mental health, science and medicine.

Take a look at the University Degree Vs Vocational Training article.