As many as 150,000 students still compete for places on university courses next year. Charlie Mole speaks to businesses about whether they see university as the be all and end all
Business leaders in the West Midlands maintain university is not the only road to success for academic achievers as record numbers of college leavers fight to study for a degree.
Despite an extra 10,000 university places being made available for A Level students this year, competition for places is fiercer than ever.
But professional services firms KPMG and PricewaterhouseCoopers (PwC) have said they want to attract a diverse range of employees – not merely graduates – opening the door to those who want to go straight into the workplace.
A Level entry applications to PricewaterhouseCoopers’ scheme HEADstart have doubled since 2008 and are up 25 per cent on last year with 10 per cent of overall applications coming from college leavers in the Midlands.
Mark Smith, chairman of PwC in the Midlands, expects interest in such schemes to increase following the current spree of budget cuts and the gloomy economic forecast for graduates.
“A Level entry training schemes are particularly well-suited to those who have a clear career in mind when they leave school,” he said.
“By combining formal study with on the job experience and personal coaching, trainees put everything they learn in their studies straight into action.
“They are earning whilst studying towards a professional accounting or tax qualification, getting great work experience and a head start in their career.
“We want diversity in the workplace, so this is a great way of encouraging people with different outlooks and life-skills.”
This year’s HEADstart scheme has roughly 13 applicants for every post, suggesting that talented students are looking for other alternatives to university to kick start their career.
And it is not only big firms which encourage talent straight out of college.
Accountant Barbara Edwards, of Kings Norton-based practice MA Edwards, achieved her position without going to university, and thinks young people should be encouraged to consider more options than merely a degree.
She said: “The Government are trying to shoe-horn people into university, however young people should be encouraged to consider both routes.
“University education was seen as the main route for a while, but I think things are beginning to change because of the state of the job market.
“My goddaughter went to university and worked in an accountancy firm during her holidays.
“That practical experience meant that she was highly employable once she had graduated. With just a degree, she would have found it much harder.”
Ms Edwards said that students who join firms directly can take the Association of Accounting Technicians examination and pass it by the time they are 20, whereas graduates will not be fully qualified for at least two years after university.
She added: “Students come out of university and then have to take these examinations, which are extremely hard; it can be a struggle after spending time studying at uni.
“In the current climate I would say coming out of university with a less than relevant degree would make it harder to succeed in accounting.
“Young people should be encouraged to train for life, not just for exams.”
Opportunities for bright A Level students, however, are not just restricted to finance. Many traditional graduate employers, including food and fashion retailers as well as solicitors, are now offering similar fast-track courses.
Simeon Ling, a spokesman for Birmingham-based legal firm Anthony Collins, believes that the emphasis on having a degree might be shifting.
He said: “One of the ways to become a legal executive is to start as a secretary or office junior and then take ILEX qualifications.
“You can earn whilst you study and it’s a good way into employment for some people.”
Meanwhile, with thousands of young people expected to find themselves without a university place come October, the future looks bleaker than ever for university leavers with graduate unemployment at a record high of 14 per cent.
Craig Abrahart, of notgoingtouniversity.com, a site dedicated to helping students explore alternative career paths, thinks that students should be encouraged to think outside the box.
He said: “It is a myth that university is the only way to secure a high paid job. We have to get away from this mentality; there are plenty of other opportunities.
“Many teachers think university is the only route because that is what they did. It is simply not the case.
“Look at the likes of Simon Cowell and Karren Brady, neither went to university and yet both are huge success stories.”
Professor David Bailey, of Coventry University’s Business School, argues many of the problems faced by graduates are down to the UK’s obsession with getting young people into university.
Post blogger Prof Bailey said: “The Government’s 50 per cent university target is an arbitrary one. Obviously university is still a valid choice, but it all depends on the individual and what they think is the right thing for them.
“Compared to China and Singapore for example this country has not done enough to encourage apprenticeships.’’
CASE STUDY: Dan Brew
With two As and a B at A Level, Dan Brew was the typical university candidate.
But after leaving Bishop Vesey’s Grammar School, in Sutton Coldfield, he stunned his teachers by deciding university was not for him.
Instead, Mr Brew, now 27, made up his mind to pursue a career in finance, joining the Birmingham branch of professional services giant PricewaterhouseCoopers at the age of 18.
And he says he has never regretted that decision.
He said: “I didn’t want to follow the crowd at 18 and go straight to university.
“I came out of A Levels and wanted to gain some commercial experience while recognising the desire to pursue my academic studies.
“98 per cent of my school went on to university; it was seen as the safe option, so it was unusual for me not to go.”
Mr Brew joined the firm in 2001 and qualified as an accountant in 2005, before going on to become one of the firm’s youngest ever audit managers in 2007.
While graduates spent three years at university before taking their AAT exams, his decision to go directly into employment meant he was already qualified and ready to progress through the company within four years.
Mr Brew added: “My advice to A Level students would be to look at the best option available to them.
“University is obviously a good career path, but it isn’t for everyone.
“There wasn’t much in the way of information available to me about the possibility of not going to university – my careers advisers looked at me with a bit of apprehension.
“I think having a mix of graduates and non-graduates is essential to a company, it gives it a mixture of life experience.”
CASE STUDY: Steve Barnes
Steve Barnes left school knowing that he wanted to be a graphic designer, but felt university wasn’t the right career path.
At 29, he is now sole designer for a UK-wide Midland-based housing association, succeeding in an industry dominated by university graduates.
“I wanted to start working. Admittedly I didn’t have the best A Level results, but university wasn’t always something that I saw as necessary,” he said. “I have plenty of friends that went to university just for the sake of it, which is something that never really appealed to me.”
After leaving college in 2001 with a HND in design, Mr Barnes found himself competing against thousands of graduates for a job in the industry.
Suffering from a lack of experience, he worked on a freelance basis for a number of local companies for 12 months while hunting for his dream job.
After almost 40 interviews, he was ready to give up on his career before finally landing his big break at a motorsport design company representing the likes of Michelin and Castrol.
“At interview many of the questions are based both around your portfolio and workplace design, just because you don’t have a degree doesn’t mean that you can’t improve these things,” he said. “This type of work is about having a flair and talent, neither of which can be taught at university.
“If you could get into the studio as a junior and improve your portfolio and what you have done, these are the most important things.”
Mr Barnes worked part-time in a music store while searching for a job and saw first hand university graduates struggling to find their niche in life.
“There were people with degrees and even masters who were trying to carve out a career, but finding it tough,” he said. “I would say it’s worth going to university, but only if that’s what you want to do, don’t go for the sake of it.’’