Andrew Tettenborn

The decline of traditional university study is no bad thing


University vice-chancellors will find some uncomfortable reading in their New Year in-tray today. Last month the chairman of accountancy giant PwC pointed out that more and more middle-class teenagers are walking away from old-style university studies and embracing degree apprenticeships and other forms of on-the-job learning. Already the number of those taking up degree apprenticeship is nearing 10 per cent of university admissions, and this figure is still set to grow.

Although many such apprenticeships boast an element of university involvement and some even a qualification called a ‘degree’, their emphasis is quite different. Learning happens predominantly by working; the academy is not the centre of the process, but merely a cog in the wheel. 

The implications for many universities are clear, and at least at first sight uncomfortable. Instead of acting as independent organisations with their own priorities, supplying graduates to a world supposedly eager to snap them up, they will increasingly be playing second fiddle, supplying services to other, often larger, organisations at the latter’s dictation.

Uncomfortable for them, certainly. But this development is not surprising; nor, to anyone looking closely at it, should it be very worrying.

One reason for this shift away from traditional degrees is expense. An old-style degree certificate now costs a student (or, depending on its solvency, the Bank of Mum and Dad) something like £28,000, over and above living expenses incurred while living away from home. Furthermore, the justification traditionally provided for gaining a degree (that those costs were almost certainly bound to be recouped through a general graduate earnings premium) is now increasingly doubtful, save in a few exceptional cases – think vocational degrees in, say, law or medicine. 

We should welcome the likely decline of the three-year full-time university degree in its present form

Meanwhile a degree apprenticeship, by contrast, is essentially free.

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