Official figures have shown that in the most recent quarter, the number of young people not in education, employment or training has dropped by 25,000 since the beginning of the year. These young people are classed as NEETs, ranging from the ages of 16-24.
Despite this positive drop in NEETs, it remains a concern that 60 per cent of these 783,000 young people are classed as economically inactive, meaning they are unemployed and not seeking employment. This figure should perhaps pull more focus than the drop in the number of NEETs. Since the law change of 2013/2014 it is a requirement that people stay in education or training until the age of 18, determining an inevitable drop in the number of NEETs between the ages of 16-18. Hence, our concern should lie with those between 18-24 years of age who become economically inactive after leaving school or college.
Edstart is an alternative education provider, offering BTEC and apprenticeship courses to young people aged between 16-19. They offer free enrolment onto their courses and paid travel expenses.The aim is to encourage alternatives to university with ‘direct links to employment’. Edstart’s CEO and former pro-rugby player Chris Irwin regards the drop in the number of NEETs in Britain as ‘welcome news’ which shows that young people are ‘bettering themselves professionally and personally’.
He does however express concern for the 60 per cent of NEETs that remain economically inactive and suggests that work-based qualifications are what need to be encouraged to reduce this figure. Edstart is an ever-growing organisation, this year signing its highest amount of students ever. Irwin promotes the idea of young people ‘breaking the traditional cycle’ of leaving school and heading to university. Edstart is appealing to those who perhaps lack the finances or motivation to apply to university, providing them with options for when they leave school which may lower the number of NEETs in the future.
At the end of 2018, the percentage of 18-year-olds in full-time education was 49.6 per cent, whilst only 8.6 per cent were in apprenticeships.This suggests that college and university remains the favoured route for young people.
Trying to assess whether continuing in education or entering the working world through an apprenticeship is the better option, remains difficult. However, can we really determine which option is objectively better? This can arguably only be decided on an individual basis, what is best for one may be worst for another.
The problem at the heart of this debate is that too often the route a young person chooses is the result of financial concerns. Those going to university are not necessarily the highest academic achievers. With the ever- expanding number of universities and courses available, a lot of students choosing to go to university do this merely because they can afford to. On the other end of the scale, apprenticeships seem to be pushed towards high academic achievers with less economic means to go to university. Thus we create a divide where the middle class are encouraged to prolong their studies whilst the working class have little choice but to plunge into adult life.
Alternatives to university are most often advertised as being the ‘fast-track’ to climbing the career ladder. They create a sort of competitive rhetoric with universities, striving to dismiss the idea that those who go to university will earn more. University is now frequently cited as a waste of time that will leave you with crippling debt, but all this could be avoided and a 9-5 position secured if you just take the alternative route.
When we really think about it, what is the rush? Why is the idea of fast-tracking our careers meant to be so exciting? I am not discrediting apprenticeships. Higher education is obviously not for everyone and apprenticeships are a great way for young people to stay on track after school. However, university allows young people to be young and to find their place in the world before they go searching for stability.
We need to deconstruct the existing division in who takes what route after school. We want to continue lowering the number of NEETs in Britain, but alternatives to university are not the only way to do this. University should be encouraged and available to anyone with the intelligence for it, regardless of their economic position.