High achievers look beyond red bricks

TOMORROW is a date that thousands of families across England and Wales will have indelibly committed to memory. Far from being merely another summer’s day, Thursday 19 August 2010 is A-Level “results day”, a make-or-break day for the career and life plans of thousands of 17 and 18-year-olds.

For many, results day will simply confirm their passage to university. Indeed, the progression of those in sixth form to university is often the default expectation, especially over the past decade. The last government often quoted 50 per cent of school leavers going onto university as a policy aim: earlier this year, the then-higher education minister, David Lammy MP, told a special young persons’ edition of Question Time that: “Having a degree is always better than not having a degree in the first place.”

But is Lammy right? This year, more young people than ever will be disappointed. The race for university places is getting tougher, with applicants re-applying, grades going up, and spending cuts affecting the number of places available.

For the estimated 170,000 young people in the UK who will miss out on their university choices this year and for the new graduates entering a sluggish job market with a combined £26.8bn worth of student debt, the idea that university is the be-all and end-all is a bit of a kick in the teeth.

NOT THE ONLY OPTION

Just as this year’s cohort of sixth form students are set to embark on their post-school educational career, another cohort are just finishing it – and they’re not at university either.

Next Monday sees 196,000 students around the world find out the results of their Association of Chartered Certified Accountants (ACCA) exams. The ACCA qualification is a non-university professional qualification that is studied by over 400,000 people worldwide.

While those who do go to university and get degrees should be very proud of their achievement, a professional or vocational qualification is something to be just as proud of too.

Just because someone doesn’t go to university it does not mean they can’t get a qualification that is not useful. There are plenty of non-graduate jobs available at top companies in a huge range of industries. In February, for example, accounting giant PricewaterhouseCoopers (PwC) announced that it would be looking more and more at employing non-graduates.
Those who pass ACCA exams don’t just work in accounting firms either. We’ve got people working for Next, Motorola, Arsenal and Wolves football clubs, the Metropolitan Police and Starbucks.

A school leaver working towards a professional or vocational qualification has several advantages over his or her university counterpart. While those studying for professional or vocational qualifications will spend three years earning money and gaining practical experience in a business, those at universities will spend three years building up debt working on a degree that may bear no relation to the job they get when they graduate. If they can find a job, that is.

And just because a qualification isn’t offered by a university, it does not make the qualification any less rigorous or respected.

The ACCA exams sat by students in June were the culmination of a rigorous 18-month process in which exam paper questions were drafted and re-drafted to ensure their credibility and relevance to current trends and issues. Papers were first drafted by a team of examiners, before being reviewed by a panel that includes representatives of the exam sitters.

ACCA exam papers are constantly reviewed by technical experts before being reviewed again by an external examiner, who ensures that fundamental level papers (of which there are nine) are equivalent to the level of a UK honours bachelor degree and that the professional level papers (there are five to be taken) are at UK masters degree level. Even after this stage, the papers still have to go through test sittings and another review before they can be signed off and sat by our students.

COMPETITION GETTING TOUGHER

While applications to universities for places starting this autumn are at a record high – the admissions body UCAS received more than 660,000 applications this year – interest in and competition for non-university career paths are on the increase too. Earlier this week, it was reported that 24,000 applications had been made for 221 apprenticeship positions at BT, while last week another report noted that applications for PwC’s school leavers’ entry scheme had doubled in the past two years. Tesco, Sainsbury’s, Grant Thornton, and KPMG are all reporting big jumps in the interest in their non-graduate schemes too.

The recession and ever-improving A-Level grades appear to have led to a bit of a rethink on alternatives to university amongst both young people and policymakers. While his predecessor didn’t appear to care so much for non-university options, the current universities minister, David Willetts MP, said last week that: “I think we should get away from the mindset that there is only one [post-school] option, which is at the age of 18 going away from home to university for three years.”

With British school leavers scoring ever-better grades, competition for any position – university or otherwise – post-school is going to be tough. There is no need to limit the options though: prestigious university courses may be an attractive option for the best and the brightest school leavers, but they’re not the only prestigious or attractive option.

Not getting the grades required to meet a university offer or just not wanting to go to university aren’t the end of the world career-wise. There are great alternatives out there that are gateways to rewarding careers, whether it’s a career in accountancy or something completely different
A professional qualification isn’t something that has to be done because of a failure to get into university; it’s a valid and credible alternative. Look beyond the red brick walls of universities and you might like what you find.

Dorothy Wood is head of education at ACCA UK.