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Raf Uzar


Head of Communication & Development

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UK skills crisis: Why university is not the best option

The UK skills crisis needs serious attention but is a university education a waste of time and money in modern Britain?
Woman facing a giant book

The time leading up to and following the publication of A-level results is an emotional rollercoaster for thousands of students. Expectations are often exceeded, sometimes met, but can also be dampened and dashed. When the dust settles and pupils begin their journey either into university education or are forced to take a different road, we ask the question: ‘What is it all for?’

Were I not a king, I would be a university man” – James I

What does society actually need?

The indomitable Ken Robinson (2006) aptly asked that self-same question and came to the conclusion that “the whole system of public education around the world is a protracted process of university entrance.” If that is the case, then it is no surprise that the world of Learning & Development is anxious about learning patterns, skill gaps, and adult training in workplaces around the world.

This anxiety and desire for change is also felt by leading organisations like the World Economic Forum (2020) and the United Nations (2022) – both have published extensive research on the need for upskilling and reskilling i.e. the need to change or add to the skills that have already been learnt. 

HR, L&D, and O&D professionals generally focus on adult workplace skills, corporate education, and on-the-job training, but recent news might encourage us to re-think this direction due to the fact that 20,000 and 30,000 A-level students that want to go to university will receive no offer. Perhaps we should begin the process of better tailoring our education system to the needs of society earlier.

In fact, UCAS has for some time been pushing for more apprenticeships and suggests that as many as 78% of students in 2021 who were awaiting their A-level results but not planning to immediately start a degree were interested in starting an apprenticeship. So is university the only path?

The true university of these days is a collection of books” – Thomas Carlyle

Racial and socio-economic inequalities

Another question that begs asking is whether the push for university as a be-all and end-all for education is helping to diminish inequalities and ‘level up’ society. Analysis of last year’s A-level results by qualification regulator and exam watchdog Ofqual indicates that the gap between black and white students has widened.

The research also points to the North-South divide widening. Both conclusions are ridiculous prospects in a would-be 21st century, pluralist society. When compounded with the long-term effects of continued online learning in schools, this is a volatile cocktail.

Ofqual research on online learning during the pandemic (2021) suggests that higher-earning parents feel more confident about their ability to make up for lost learning as a result of school closures compared to lower-earning parents. So is the race to get into university actually helping reduce inequalities or not? To what extent is public education helping diminish inequities in society?

At the same time, we see record numbers of students being accepted to university as figures continue to steadily increase over time (at least since 1994) according to the UK government. Together with continuously rising top grades, we might get the impression that all seems rosy in the world of academia. Surely a higher number of students with better grades means more intelligent and skilled people?

Not everybody needs to go to university” – Alan Sugar

Is the tide changing?

Corporate recruitment is often a good, practical indicator of the state of university graduates and if they match the needs of companies and the skills required to function effectively in the workplace.

The news that top accountancy firm PwC has lowered its university degree entry requirements may hint at the fact that corporate organisations are understanding that (seemingly global) grade inflation is not conducive to their recruitment requirements. EY scrapped its similar 2:1 degree entry requirement seven years ago! The fact of the matter is that university degrees may not actually be a good measure of future professional achievement and success.

Research by leading economist James Heckman (who shared a Nobel Prize for work on econometrics and microeconomics) suggests that personality is a much better predictor of success. He states rather succinctly in his conclusion that: ‘Cognitive skills predict life outcomes’. 

University brings out all abilities, including incapability” – Anton Chekhov

Bring it back to purpose

So let us reformulate our initial question: What purpose should public education serve? Perhaps it should not be a process of protracted university entrance but rather a process by which we nurture, support, and develop the (cognitive) skills necessary to function in a diverse society. 

In last year's Learning and Skills at Work report, the CIPD asked respondents in which areas of their organisation were they seeing the greatest need for skills development among employees. The top five were:

  • General management (30%)
  • IT and digital (27%)
  • Customer service (20%)
  • Sales/relationship management (17%)
  • L&D (14%)

An additionally telling question was which skills areas were in greatest need of improvement among employees in their organisations. The top ones were:

  • Technical/job-specific skills (38%)
  • Communication skills (33%)
  • Resilience and learning skills (33%)
  • Planning and organisation skills (29%)
  • Teamworking skills (27%)
  • Customer-handling skills (27%)
  • Problem-solving skills (25%)

In parallel to the above surveys, the August 2022 CIPD report Employer Views on Skills Policy in the UK paints a revealing picture by asking respondents to name the skills that organisations are having difficulty finding among candidates:

  • Technical skills (68%)
  • Problem-solving skills (25%)
  • Planning and organisation skills (23%)
  • Customer-handling skills (23%)
  • Communication skills (22%)

I didn't go to university… But I have sympathy for those who did” –  Terry Pratchett

How are universities supporting skills development?

To what degree (pardon the pun!) does the university education system nurture, support, and develop these skills? To what extent do universities prepare students for a workplace and society which seems to be in desperate need of these skills? 

On a personal note, I adored university: the friends I made and the wonderful education that I received. They were some of the best years of my life. I believe that everyone should have the (equal) opportunity to attend university if they so wish. 

When they were first founded, universities had a very different mandate and functioned in a very different environment. The world’s first were established in 1088 (Bologna), 1096 (Oxford), Salamanca (1134), and Paris (1160), almost a thousand years ago! 

The world is now being shaped by very different forces and our global society has a different range of needs than it did back then

A new era of learning?

The world is now being shaped by very different forces and our global society has a different range of needs than it did back then. L&D, O&D, and HR professionals have a unique opportunity of informing and defining the education systems of the world thanks to informed and definitive research on education, skills, and learning in the workplace.

This will surely help us inform corporate stakeholders, political activists, and social influencers about the challenges we will face in the future and the skills needed to rise to these challenges.

So to go back to our initial enquiry about the purpose of university education, it might be useful to hear from a certain US President to help shed light on the question: “A man who has never gone to school may steal from a freight car; but if he has a university education, he may steal the whole railroad,” Theodore Roosevelt.

Interested in this topic? Read Degree apprenticeships remain a hidden gem for skills development.

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Author Profile Picture
Raf Uzar

Head of Communication & Development

Read more from Raf Uzar

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