Routes through Education into Employment as England Enters the 2020s

Ken Roberts, 2019

Abstract: Throughout the 1980s and 90s there was international interest in the UK’s extensive experience (which began in the 1970s) with measures to alleviate youth unemployment. Today the UK attracts international attention on account of its low rates of youth unemployment and NEET, its (still) relatively rapid education-to-work transitions, and (according to the OECD) its sustainable system for funding mass higher education. This paper uses a transitions regime paradigm to overview the outcomes of 40 years of change in England’s lower and upper secondary education, government-supported training, welfare provisions, economy and labour markets. We see how government policies polarise schools and young people into those who are achieving and those who are failing. Then, as employers become more influential, young people are re-sorted into the employment classes that have been formed during 30 years of change in the economy and labour market. Most from the former achieving group are pulled into the centre, between the smaller numbers on the one side who are embarking on elite careers, and on the other those who become part of a precariat class.

Keywords: Education, labour markets, vocational training, youth.

This paper reviews the outcomes of 30 years of change in the education-to-work transitions of England’s young people. The current ‘transition regime’ is a product of extensive changes in education, government supported training, state welfare provisions for young people, and in the economy and labour market. The conclusion is that England’s current transition regime is sustainable and internationally distinctive, though not necessarily admirable.

There is no independent careers service which offers vocational information, advice and guidance. These responsibilities have been devolved to schools where the only route onwards with which teachers are familiar is into higher education. That said, firms have no difficulty in recruiting to Advanced and Higher apprenticeships. Competition for degree apprenticeships is as fierce as for Oxbridge. Government support for degree apprenticeships since 2015, in the context of the post-2012 funding regime for higher education students (mainly fee and maintenance loans), has created opportunities for those employers who have long believed that future managers and professionals benefit from early workplace experience. Firms have been enabled to make an attractive alternative offer to well-qualified 18 year olds – the degree apprenticeship. Government ministers have announced a desire for a half of all undergraduate students to become degree apprentices, but the numbers are determined by employers.

The degree apprenticeship is an attractive offer to well-qualified 18 year olds, but making this offer is realistic only for large firms that can recruit degree apprentices in dozens. In the future, the appeal of the degree apprentice route will depend on whether the careers of the former apprentices forge ahead or lag behind those of conventional graduate recruits.

For young people who have remained on an academic route from 16-18, an apprenticeship is an alternative to higher education which can lead to the same bands of employment that university graduates compete to enter.

University graduates have a higher employment rate, and a lower unemployment rate, than any other section of the labour force. Higher education in England today lifts young people clear of the precariat, and therefore remains a very attractive step for students from working class backgrounds. However, university is no longer normally the gateway to an elite career. In this sense, the career rewards from higher education have declined, but the ‘graduate premium’ is being preserved.

Despite the extensive changes during the last 30 years in education, government supported training, state welfare policies that affect young people, and in the economy and labour market, the basic career advice that can be given to young people today is the same as 30 years ago, when it had remained unchanged during the previous 30 years. This is because powerful features of Britain’s education and business cultures have not changed. The advice is to continue in academic education for as long as a young person can, then step into a job, possibly via an apprenticeship, with a firm or in an occupation that can offer an extended career which feels right for the young person. This advice is unchanged because of firms’ preference for training their own employees, imparting the required skills and knowledge post-entry.

The reason why Britain has experienced the growth of a precariat, why technical qualifications at levels 1 and 2 prove useless, and why Britain sustains funding for a mass higher education system with the myths that it is creating the skilled labour needed by a knowledge economy, and that student loans will be repaid painlessly from graduate salaries, is that the country has not had genuine full employment since the 1970s.

In current labour market conditions, the transition regime is sustainable only while state funding is available to support a mass higher education experience which persuades 40 percent of young people to grasp the offer and take the risks, alongside a weakly regulated labour market which will create an unlimited number of precarious jobs, and a benefits regime that coerces the otherwise unemployed into these jobs. The regime still enables young people to make rapid education-to-work transitions by current Euro-American norms. In conditions of genuine full employment the regime will become not just sustainable but may also be admirable, yet possible to emulate only in countries with Anglo-American type education and business cultures.

Read in full