Yes, we need a major increase in degree apprenticeships – but is it enough to solve the UK’s worsening skills crisis?

Guest blog by Stephen Bartle, Director Commercial and Business Development, University College of Estate Management

Last week – as reported in The Independent – Chairman of the Education Select Committee, Robert Halfon called for, “…an end to the ‘obsession’ with degrees.” He said, “We are creating a higher education system that overwhelmingly favours academic degrees, while intermediate and higher technical offerings are comparatively tiny.

He also highlighted that between a fifth and a third of graduates currently take non-graduate jobs on the completion of their studies, many with a “lead weight of £50,000 dragging from their feet”.

Halfon’s speech on higher education to the Centre for Social Justice think tank, comes shortly after his keynote address late last year at the launch of the UK Poverty 2017 report; where he revealed that a third of workers in England don’t hold suitable qualifications for the jobs they do. Talking to the think tank, Halfon went on to comment that, “The labour market does not need an ever-growing supply of academic degrees.”

However, the solution to this issue doesn’t need to be as drastic as reducing our degrees altogether. There are many alternatives to traditional higher education that still grant an academic degree qualification – providing the theory that goes hand in hand with practical work experience – but without the risks of massive debts and no route into related work. The combination of academic study and vocational learning provides the best of both worlds: close ties to the professions; ‘business’ relevant skills; cutting-edge industry knowledge; exposure to high-profile companies; and networking opportunities with practising professionals – arguably giving graduates more credibility and relevance than traditional degree programmes.

As Halfon recommended, we need more focus on technical training and a major expansion of “earn as you learn” degree apprenticeships; where students study and work at the same time. Not only will this help prevent graduates from incurring debt, but they’ll also be highly likely to get good quality jobs at the end of their studying – and, of course, it’ll help close the UK’s growing skills deficit.

Degree programmes in vocational subjects offer excellent prospects for graduate-level jobs on completion. For example, Built Environment programmes have the third highest outcomes in terms of professional employment after medicine and veterinary science. Furthermore, the education options offered by alternative institutions have generally lower fees than the standard £9k a year; they also offer online and distance learning models, which means students can earn while they learn. And degree apprenticeships provide an excellent alternative to full-time undergraduate programmes; a fully-funded degree, paid work with a participating employer, and a launch-pad to a successful career in the apprentice’s chosen industry.

A Department for Education spokesman remarked in response to Halfon, “The government wants everyone to be equipped with the skills they need to get on in life and succeed in the jobs of the future. That’s why we are overhauling the technical and further education sectors, working with employers to improve the quality of apprenticeships as well as to increase their take-up, and investing £500m a year in new T levels.”

Construction has been picked as one of the first three T-levels, the new technical qualifications launching in 2020 to simplify the process of vocational training. T-levels will allow 16 to 19-year-olds to study in 15 sectors including engineering, manufacturing and construction.

Education secretary, Justine Greening, commented, “We are transforming technical education in this country, developing our home-grown talent so that our young people have the world-class skills and knowledge that employers need.”

But are more degree apprenticeships and T-levels enough to tackle the predicament that is the Built Environment skills crisis?

These are all positive moves in the right direction. However, we are still a long way from meeting the skills gap, especially within areas such as construction and real-estate. In our recently launched Built Environment Skills Summit report, we called out for a unified careers and qualifications framework; to help foster joined-up engagement between the sector and schools, colleges and universities. A single, clear roadmap, for professional qualifications, education and careers is needed to increase the understanding of Built Environment career pathways and sustainably address the future talent pipeline.

However, at present, this picture is – at best – only articulated within each discrete professional body. Overall, the problem is there’s a lack of joined-up thinking across stakeholders and an overarching leadership body for skills.

Ashley Wheaton, UCEM Principal, recently told Estates Gazette, “We need to represent the Built Environment in its entirety. Everyone is trying to solve their own problems, but this is an industry problem and we need to come together to sort it. There needs to be a willingness to participate in something that is bigger than each individual factor. Today the sum of the parts is less than the whole and we cannot afford that. We have a big problem to solve.”

Read the full set of recommendations for solving the Built Environment skills crisis in our recent press release.

At UCEM, we are committed to contributing to a better Built Environment through high-quality education. For more sector updates from us, make sure you’re following us on Twitter, Facebook and LinkedIn for all the latest.