Ronel Lehmann is the founder and CEO of Finito Education
In the latest university league tables published by The Complete University Guide, the institution that scored the highest for its graduate prospects ranked a lowly 52nd in the tables overall. The wonderful St George’s, University of London, saw 93.6 per cent of its graduates take up graduate-level employment or further study, and yet still the specialist medical and health sciences university scored poorly against ‘competitors’.
In fact, only five of the top ten universities measured by graduate prospects achieved top ten places overall, with the likes of Birmingham, Dundee, Bath and Exeter exceptionally good at seeing their graduates into great jobs but otherwise overlooked by the table criteria.
At a time when Britain faces so many macroeconomic challenges and uncertainties, the need to not just cultivate the talents of our brightest youngsters but also to get them to work should be obvious. Just as skills shortages are a huge problem in this country, so the challenges of skills under-utilisation should not be ignored, because too often employees are not using all their skills in their current jobs.
There is a continual obsession amongst colleges, schools and universities – much reported by the media – with ensuring the highest placements in rankings and league tables. The incentives now on offer to bright candidates are quite incredible: in 2017, Newman University offered all students achieving BBB or ABC at A-level up to £10,000 across the course of their three-year degrees, paid in instalments.
At Queen’s University Belfast, students from Great Britain achieving ABB at A-level received £1,750 plus three free flights home a year, free off-peak sports centre membership, a free movie pass, free accommodation upgrades, a free bedding and kitchen pack in the first year and free luggage shipping. Others offer laptops, iPads and free Master’s degrees in order to attract the best students.
I do not deny that results are important, of course. But when so much effort is put into recruiting the best undergraduates at the outset, academic outcomes are by their nature distorted. Universities should certainly be judged on measures such as student satisfaction, research quality, facilities spend and student to staff ratios, but can there really be anything more important that turning out graduates able to secure brilliant jobs and set out on lucrative careers to the benefit of the country as a whole?
I only wish that these same institutions that devote so much effort to attracting the best school-leavers would put similar energy and resources into ensuring that their graduate alumni are actually prepared, fit and ready for the world of work.
The issue is also abundant in schools and colleges. Euan Blair, the son of our former Prime Minister and co-founder and CEO at WhiteHat, recently raised this topic when talking about his own business. WhiteHat is a tech start-up focused on matching non-graduate talent to apprenticeship opportunities at some of the UK’s most exciting companies, thereby building alternative pathways for young people into amazing careers.
Euan tells the story of one of the company’s recent apprentices, about to embark on a two-year apprenticeship at Facebook. She is 18 years old, incredibly bright, with an equally incredible opportunity to build a career on the back of experience gained in one of the world’s coolest companies. And yet the reaction of her school? She was told that by not going to university she was ‘self-sabotaging’ and making a huge mistake.
This perspective is so unhelpful, outdated and – frankly – wrong. We live in changing times, the cost of university has skyrocketed in recent years, and for a wide range of reasons the best pupils are often tempted by other routes into work. Surely the objective of all of us should be to see these people into careers that they love, where they can flourish and contribute to their maximum ability?
In 2016, the government introduced the apprenticeship levy for precisely this reason, to improve productivity and drive record investment in skills training countrywide. The aim is to hit a target of three million new apprenticeships by 2020, providing an accelerator for school leavers into employment, with what is a long overdue and most welcome development.
Young people today face a world of opportunity but an incredibly competitive labour market. It is in all our best interests to develop an education system engineered not only towards developing skills, but also to putting those skills to maximum, effective and sustainable use.