Is a university education really that essential?

What with the strains of economic recovery, a continued reluctance on behalf of banks to give credit and the threat of rising taxes, businesses could be forgiven for putting their hands over their ears and singing loudly in order to avoid noticing a new report which says they need to put more money into working with universities.

The report, published this morning by employers’ organisation the CBI, says if the UK wishes to maintain its international competitiveness, businesses need to put more money into higher education through sponsorships, financial support for graduates and work placements.

Richard Lambert, the group’s director general, says the measures are ‘vital’. “Business should engage more with universities, both financially and intellectually,” he trilled. “More firms should help design and pay for courses for the benefit of the current and future workforce, and more firms should offer students practical work experience.”

Smarta isn’t surprised by these suggestions. When Tony Blair announced in 1997 in what was denounced as ‘an almost throwaway statement’ he would personally ensure 50% of all 18-30-year-olds go into higher education, he was setting a course for chaos – an action which saw thousands of students signing up for degrees in football studies.

But instead of asking businesses to invest even more in travel and tourism courses, perhaps another solution might be found in apprenticeships, government funding of which has increased by a quarter in the last year alone.

Rather than force people who don’t enjoy it into higher education, allowing them to earn a subsidised wage while teaching them a skill they can use further down the line will allow them to spend the time they might otherwise invest in a parapsychology degree into something worthwhile.

“[We recommend that] the government temporarily drops its target of 50% of 18-30-year-olds participating in higher education,” said Lambert today. But how about going one better than that? How recognising some people just aren't suited to academia - and then abolishing the target altogether?

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