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Vocational courses are a valuable alternative

The relief of achieving good exam results is short-lived for school pupils. By January 15th, six months before sitting their A-levels, those wanting to go to university must have already applied to the courses they want to enrol on, which are likely to define the next three to four years of their lives – if not their whole career.

But while university fees and the number of graduates keep rising, funds and the number of jobs available at the end do not follow the same trend. Mathematically, there is an issue when ones looks at the supply of graduates and the demand for graduate labour, but it might be simpler to solve than it seems.

Culturally, graduating from university is associated with success and pride. In the UK, it is also a social experience, for many involving leaving their home-town and moving in with new people. But HE (Higher Education) is above all a specific method of teaching, academically and theoretically, which is adapted to some individuals and jobs, but not to all.

Alternative options could prove the most cost-effective choice for many and open up the pathway to higher level skills for many more. The curriculum offer in FE (Further Education) is vast, and the variety of technical and vocational courses available is constantly adapting to the evolving needs of businesses. Ongoing engagement between skills providers and small businesses is essential, and this symbiosis is hugely beneficial to both the individuals who chose to pursue a vocational path, and to wider society.

In October, ColegauCymru / CollegesWales released a new independent report which demonstrates the major financial impact that the FE sector has on the Welsh economy, estimated to be worth an additional £4 billion every year. We found that for every £1 learners personally put towards their education at FE colleges in Wales, they can expect to yield £6.90 in higher future wages. And for every £1 society spends on FE colleges in Wales, it will receive £7.90 from those learners over the course of their working lives – an average annual return of 24%.

There is, however, a current and deep-seated a misconception that FE implies a lower level of education. In fact, the technical and vocational curriculum offer is much more complex and complete than it seems.

While NVQ Level 1 is designed for individuals who need to quickly identify their competence at doing their job, several technical and vocational certificates like Level 2 are equivalent to GCSEs and a level 3 qualification sits alongside A-Levels. These qualifications facilitate getting employment or progressing to higher technical level jobs, and include several paid apprenticeship programmes and college-based study, with learning available from level 2 right up to level 7.

At Level 4 and 5, HNCs and HNDs provide technical and vocational qualifications equivalent to that of the second or third year of university. These can also be used to enter university at an advanced level, and NVQs can even go as far as Levels 6 and 7, equivalent to a Master’s degree – achieving one’s full potential and saving thousands of pounds in student costs.

With most vocational college-based courses available locally, learners can make significant savings on accommodation and transport costs during their studies. Regions which support the provision of local vocational higher-level learning are more likely to retain their graduates once in employment. Being closer to home also enables learners to benefit from the social and professional networks they have developed to find work.

And as Wales’ 39 FE colleges and institutions are not-for-profit, they are usually free until the age of 25. More than half their funding comes from the Welsh Government, with further income from work with businesses, contracted services and international activity.

Employers value vocational courses with their mix of knowledge and real-world experience – new recruits are more likely to be profession-ready and hit the ground running. Theoretical knowledge alone is no longer sufficient – wider employability skills have become essential to securing employment. Some studies show that half of graduate employers in the UK are unlikely to recruit a candidate with no work experience.

FE vocational and technical courses enable learners to get a taste of the real work market, without paying extortionate tuition fees. There will always be a place for University and academic learning but not all learners have the same vocation, abilities and means, and different methods are best adapted to different profiles. Alternative modes of studying, especially at higher levels, deserve better recognition and, importantly, they deserve support from politicians too.