What to do about young people not going to university?

6 May 2016

By Ingrid Schoon, University College London Institute of Education.
Email: I.Schoon@ucl.ac.uk

“Most young people, especially those who do not follow an academic route, are ‘overlooked’” by current policy structure (House of Lords Paper 120, 2016)


Current policy structure ignores the needs of young people who adopt the traditional work-focused route to independent adulthood. Successive governments have focused their initiatives on two groups of young people: the increasing number who are taking A-levels and go on to university, or the small minority who are at risk of dropping out of education, employment or training, so-called NEETs. However, a large group of young people do not fall into one of these two groups. Indeed, the majority of young people in the UK today do not go to university – they find jobs or continue with some form of vocational training – but they are not offered the opportunities they need to make a successful transition from school to work (House of Lords, 2016). This group of young people, i.e. those who try to make their way to independent adulthood through a work-focused route and a combination of work and further education and training, has been identified as the ‘forgotten middle’ (Roberts, 2011; 2013), as those who have to make the transition to adulthood with only minimal or no assistance or support.

Recent evidence from the British Household Panel Study and Understanding Society Survey suggests that there has been a slight increase among 17 to 23 year olds participating in higher education (comprising about a third of the sample) and the proportion of those who are experiencing persistent unemployment or not being in education, employment or training (NEET) has increased up to 17 per cent. However, the majority of young people enter the labour market relatively early (either directly after compulsory schooling or after some further education) and are able to secure continuous employment (Schoon & Lyons-Amos, 2016). This study drew on data collected for recent age cohorts born between 1980/84 and 1985/89, comparing trends in the timing and sequencing of education to employment transitions between 1996 and 2010.

Although young people are under increasing pressure to complete higher education and to obtain degree-level qualifications in order to compete in the current knowledge economies, a large number do not go to university. Leaving education relatively early with a post-secondary qualification and engaging in continuous full-time employment is not a minority pattern in British youth transitions, neither is it necessarily a bad strategy if there are jobs available that pay a decent salary and provide opportunities for career progression. Income earned through longer-term full-time employment enables financial independence, the move into one’s own home, and supporting one’s own family at an earlier pace than among those who continue in higher education. What is required is the creation and provision of pathways to success among future workers at every education level. Yet, while the route to a university education is well signposted and supported through state subsidies, the route into work for 16-20 year olds is more like “an unmarked field of landmines” (ACEVO, 2012). Young people need information and guidance about how to navigate their way into the world of work, and clear, high-quality progression routes should be available – in particular for those who do not obtain a higher education degree. Furthermore, there is a need to improve the economic prospects of young people without an academic degree and to pay a living wage for those in full-time employment. Wages for young people, especially those in relative low-skilled as well as intermediate level jobs, have declined since the 1970s – a trend that needs to be reversed. Leaving young people without the support they need to forge their pathways to independence and prosperity will have implications for generations to come, and does not serve the UK’s social and economic needs.

Further reading

ACEVO. (2012). Youth unemployment: the crisis we cannot afford.

House of Lords (2016). Overlooked and left behind: improving the transition from school to work for the majority of young people. London: HL Paper 120.

Roberts, K. (2013). Education to Work Transitions: How the Old Middle Went Missing and Why the New Middle Remains Elusive. Sociological Research Online, vol 18.

Roberts, S. (2011). Beyond ‘NEET’ and ‘tidy’ pathways: considering the ‘missing middle’ of youth transition studies. Journal of Youth Studies, 14(1), 21-39.

Schoon, I. and Lyons-Amos, M. (2016). Diverse pathways in becoming an adult: the role of structure, agency and context. Research in Social Stratification and Mobility. ISSN 02765624.

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