Degree
What is on the horizon for Britain's new graduates? Will it justify the debt they will take forward?iStock

Last week, the Sutton Trust sounded a warning about university. Since the government has shifted the cost of education from the public purse to young people, university debt in Britain is the highest in English-speaking world, almost double that in the United States.

Now we know that going to university doesn't guarantee your child what we used to call a "graduate job", what is the point of going to university? Can we avoid this waste of time and money?

On average, graduates now have a debt of £44,000, and for those taking courses, like engineering, teaching, architecture, medicine, law or even nursing, the postgraduate qualification that is required to access those professions will increase this figure even further.

Peter Lampl, chairman of the Sutton Trust, says: "This impacts on the ability of graduates to go to graduate schools, to afford a mortgage, the timing of having children and other major life decisions. The cost of going to university [is so high] that more young people should seriously consider higher level apprenticeships, preferably to degree level."

And for some of our children this is absolutely right. But I have a warning of my own, and I want to shout it from the rooftops. We need the right apprenticeships, set up with companies with real jobs for people with skills of the future. They must not be the cheap also-ran option.

There are still few courses of action that are better than going to university. But the heavy financial tolls may mean that those who are not cushioned by family wealth may be better off in many ways working from the age of 16 and gaining training on the way.

We don't want our teachers and judges and urban planners to be exclusively drawn from the affluent middle classes.

Done properly, on-the-job training really is not a cheap alternative for society. The right apprenticeships allied to progressive companies in an area like engineering, which requires theoretical learning in maths and materials as well as lab-based teaching, are just as expensive as standard university courses. It is just that the student does not pay directly because a company is investing in their future.

I came from a family that had no experience of higher education. I was lucky that they let me study physics, rather than the type of courses that would have attracted industrial sponsorship. I hate to think of a child of similar background denied the sheer wonder and fulfilment of the scientific career teaching and research that I have had.

But we are facing an age-old problem.

"The child of money will suck the milk of life before the babe of merit takes first breath" (Anon)

As a country we need the best hearts and minds working for us in all our arms of challenge, not just those who can pay for the privilege. We don't want our teachers and judges and urban planners to be exclusively drawn from the affluent middle classes.

But in numerous fields, we are moving back towards an age where people simply bought positions for the children. In the old days people bought a commission in the army or an apprenticeship. Now they pay for an private tuition or an internship, subsidise accommodation in London or have a word with a friend about a work placement.

Just this week, Legal & General published data that revealed just how important the Bank of Mum and Dad is proving in providing young people with a leg up. The effects of this are already being felt, away from education, with parents lending some £5 billion to help the next generation get on the property ladder. As with education, while this is not a bad thing, it accentuates the disadvantages of those unable to provide more financially for their children.

We are moving back towards an age where people simply bought positions for the children

So going back to Sir Peter Lampl, what sort of apprenticeships are a better option and what does the country really need? Or rather, what companies and sectors need the new generation of apprentices?

The figures tell an important story. More than two-thirds of skilled workers in the civil nuclear energy industry will retire in the coming decade, with 31% of high-tech manufacturers importing skilled workers from abroad in order to meet staff shortages.

In 2013, the total number of job vacancies in the manufacturing sector reached 655,000, according to the UK Commission for Employment and Skills. This is a figure that continues to grow each year.

Doctors and nurses are needed to deliver healthcare nationwide. But the UK will run out of energy and hospital staff, and will not be able to build its new high-speed rail infrastructure without the right skills. If that happens, the UK will be forced to buy people and high-value products from abroad, and that is a disaster economically and in terms of opportunity.

As a nation we need to compete internationally in areas of high value. Adapting to the realities of further technological innovations driven by the global digital revolution will require greater dynamism and insight within our university faculties. The development of skills and techniques is what makes the UK competitive in this context.

University rankings measure university quality based on entry grades at A level. They actively discourage social mobility and preserve the status quo in higher education.

As a university vice-chancellor, I have always believed the higher cost of degrees imposed on us was a terrible mistake. But the answer is not to "name and shame" the universities that cannot ensure returns on investment. The right answer is to continue focusing on quality.

And I am not just talking theoretically. My own university is in the top 100 in the world. But we also have 600 advanced apprentices sponsored by companies working in our manufacturing research centre, and we want more.

Their experience of university is closer to that of our nursing or architecture students, working as practitioners in an industry environment, with their work overseen by their teachers. Apprentices live locally, but increasingly candidates from across the UK are seeking to enrol in South Yorkshire's best higher apprenticeships.

But to take more on, we have had to face down some significant objections, including from within our own ranks of academia. The problem is those same university rankings used by many parents to tell if a university is "good" or not. These measure university quality based on entry grades at A level. They actively discourage social mobility and preserve the status quo in higher education.

We can't allow this to continue. What are the apprenticeships that a middle-class family describe with pride over dinner? What if they were sponsored by Rolls-Royce or Microsoft, the BBC or NASA?

There is a future for university tuition without debt, but the current emphasis on value over quality is damaging universities' ability to mobilise disadvantaged candidates with the skills and purpose to thrive.

We shouldn't sell apprenticeships short. Britain still has an unrivalled aerospace industry and, at the University of Sheffield, we work with Boeing and other industry manufacturers at our Advanced Manufacturing Research Centre (AMRC) to develop new machining techniques and advanced materials.

Colin Sirett, who has just joined as the CEO of the AMRC, is a former head of research at Airbus. He started his career as an apprentice, before he went on to university and excelled, already armed with knowledge of industrial operations and techniques, with a job to progress to once his theoretical training was over. He is a model for the young people just starting down the same route, and he is not an isolated example.

Our engineering degree apprenticeships are no second-rate option. They are funded by companies who employ the students. They mean no debt and no anxieties about wasted funds or access to graduate opportunities. They lead to a flourishing career in an area the UK really needs talent, regardless of the apprentice's social background.

There is a future for university tuition without debt, but the current emphasis on value over quality is damaging universities' ability to mobilise disadvantaged candidates with the skills and purpose to thrive. We need education that opens opportunity, not shuts it down. I want to see working-class physicists and teachers. And I want to see apprentices who go on to run thriving British companies. I don't want a generation of young people to be forced by the fear of debt to sit at the back of the educational bus.


Professor Sir Keith Burnett CBE FRS FRSW is vice-chancellor of the University of Sheffield and co-author of a report into The Future Of Vocational Education.