Labour leader Ed Miliband says he rejects “the snobbery that assumes the only route to social mobility runs through university”. While this attempt to champion vocational qualifications hardly breaks new ground among the political elite, it does at least represent further acknowledgement that work-based learning is of growing importance in an era of skyrocketing tuition fees.
Many apprentices will tell you that they receive a deal that trumps university education on several fronts: a living wage, an enormous amount of hands-on experience, and even the prospect of eventually gaining a degree – without being lumbered with debts that will take years to pay off.
New research from the Institution of Engineering and Technology (IET) confirms that, with the cost of degrees set to rise this autumn, the route offered by apprenticeships is a worthwhile alternative career path for future engineers. Despite the fact that degrees are still generally held in higher regard, both are valid routes to professional engineering qualifications, says the IET.
The IET report, Furthering Your Career, finds that, while a balance of theoretical study and on-the-job training is required, many future engineers are currently looking for alternative routes into the profession. The practical skills offered by apprenticeships could provide the necessary opportunity.
Following interviews with employees and employers from within the engineering industry, the IET’s opinion-based report concludes that there are a number of benefits that professional qualifications bring to engineers and the companies in which they work. These benefits encompass clear goals, recognition, promotion, customer confidence, and a committed and loyal workforce.
However, the report also found that, despite their undoubted importance, apprenticeships are still undervalued by many people. Michelle Watt, asset improvement engineer at Tata Steel, says: “Professional qualifications show that your degree is the start of your learning, and I think in some arenas apprenticeships are still not held in as high a regard as a degree, when they should be.”
John Druce, learning and development manager at television infrastructure firm Arqiva, says: “Perceptions are still traditional, and the focus of many schools is still on sending pupils to university rather than onto apprenticeships. However, this view may be gradually changing and it’s important to recognise that both routes are valuable.”
Stephanie Fernandes, principal policy adviser at the IET, concludes: “September 2012 will see major tuition fee rises applied by universities, which will likely lead many potential undergraduates, and future engineers, to consider alternatives to a degree. Given the issues faced by the engineering and technology sectors, apprenticeships are a viable option. At the IET we are committed to helping young engineers develop their careers and work towards professional registration, whether they are doing degrees or apprenticeships.”