Frank Field MP
Your MP for Birkenhead
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'University students are being sold a pup. They should take an apprenticeship'

18 August 2017
Commons Chamber

It surely cannot be long before some bright spark takes the government and schools to court under the Trade Descriptions Act. As we reflect on this year's A-level results, many sixth formers all over the country are mis-sold a graduate career, when the right advice, in terms of pay and happiness, is to take an apprenticeship.

There is already a growing unease among young graduates who feel they have been ripped off. Successive generations of young people have been sold a place at university on the basis of it being a first, necessary step towards a successful career. Alternative routes have been dismissed as non-starters.

Yet graduates’ median hourly pay fell last year. Over the past four years, the employment rate among graduates has crept up by only one percentage point. Their unease appears to be fully justified.

This mis-selling scandal is so strongly embedded that it is countering any appetite across the country for alternative routes into jobs that pay decent wages and offer healthy prospects for progression.

One particularly attractive route is the one offered by apprenticeships.

Clearly the debate on how best to equip young people with the skills they need to earn a living in the modern economy should be moving fast up the political agenda – or, at least, it would if the country thought through a strategy to prevent any skills shortages emerging in the post-Brexit labour market, once we have introduced a system of border controls.

For the past two years, I have been trying to build up a comprehensive bank of information on the differing fortunes of graduates and apprentices, to help guide public policy on this crucial topic. My view – based on the information that is now available – is that apprenticeships should be placed in the driving seat of a post-Brexit skills strategy, both to advance a sizeable number of young people’s living standards, as well as to maintain the overall health of the economy. Here’s why.

Two years ago, on the back of my request, the Office for National Statistics (ONS) found that more than a quarter of graduates were earning lower wages than non-graduate employees who have completed an apprenticeship. They also showed that the lowest earning 40 per cent of graduates were more likely to be working in part-time roles than non-graduates with an apprenticeship.

More recently, the ONS provided fresh data which, we hope, will serve as a reminder to would-be students and their parents, that any old degree is not necessarily the most preferable option for their career.

They found that the proportion of graduates earning lower gross hourly pay than apprentices was four percentage points higher in 2016 (29 per cent) than in 2005 (25 per cent). Moreover, the proportion of graduates with only an undergraduate degree earning a lower gross hourly wage than apprentices increased by six percentage points in 2016; from 26 per cent to 32 per cent.

There’s more. The employment rate among people who have completed an apprenticeship gained four percentage points on that among graduates between 2012 and 2016; the gap narrowed from six percentage points to two. In addition, while graduates’ median hourly pay fell last year, apprentices’ median hourly pay increased by 3.7 per cent.

These data demonstrate how a large number of students have been sold a pup. They prove the need for a serious rethink when it comes to the careers advice given to 16- to 17 year-olds.

Frank Field is MP for Birkenhead and chair of the House of Commons Work and Pensions Committee. This article was co-written by Andrew Forsey.


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