Could Ed Miliband's technical degrees help narrow the North East's skills gap?

Labour leader proposes 'gold standard' earn-while-you-learn courses for young people

Labour leader Ed Miliband
Labour leader Ed Miliband in the North East

As the Journal strives to narrow the region’s skills gap through its Proud to Back Apprenticeships campaign, Labour leader Ed Miliband has proposed an alternative way forward for the “forgotten 50%” of young people who shun traditional academic studies.

Earn-while-you-learn technical degrees would be a top priority for a Labour government, Mr Miliband said at summit on vocational education in London.

Under the plans, businesses and universities would work together to design “gold standard” courses that have the equivalent status of a BA.

The route would be primarily aimed at young people who have already done apprenticeships and vocational qualifications and who want to continue down this path, rather than a traditional academic route.

Such students would have the choice to “earn while they learn” for the first time, the degrees being carried out in the workplace as well as the lecture hall.

Mr Miliband said he did not want to “put a number” on how many students Labour would want to pursue the new courses.

However, such practical degrees would be the party’s priority for the expansion of university places if it takes power next year.

Labour leader Ed Miliband in the Grainger Market
Labour leader Ed Miliband in the Grainger Market

“For too long, governments have believed there is only one way to success through education, which is to follow the conventional academic route: to do GCSEs, A-levels, a traditional academic subject at university and then on to career,” the Labour leader said.

This route has worked for many, Mr Miliband argued, adding that he was proud of Labour’s record on expanding access to university.

“But we know that conventional academic route doesn’t work for everyone,” he said.

“The kind of aspiration we need to succeed cannot be limited to some and not all.

“We must be one nation, not two.”

Mr Miliband said a Labour government, working with businesses and employers will “revolutionise learning and training” to build a high-quality, high-skill economy for the future.

“As the culmination of our reform agenda for the forgotten 50% who do not currently go to university, the next Labour government will work with our companies and our universities to develop new technical degrees,” he said.

“This is not currently the priority of our universities because it has never been the priority of government.

“We are determined to change that.”

Labour has already announced other measures to overhaul practical training, including a technical baccalaureate for 16-19-year-olds and a requirement for further education lecturers to hold teaching qualifications.

The latest news comes in the midst of the Journal campaign, which seeks to boost the number of North East businesses taking on apprentices.

The issue is particularly pressing for the region, as vast swathes of experienced employees in the engineering and manufacturing sectors are due to retire in the coming years, the worry being that skillsets developed over long periods of times could be lost unless a new generation is welcomed on board and properly trained.

In recent months, there have been numerous signs of growing enthusiasm for the agenda, with companies such as the County Durham-based Esh Group and BT announcing masses of vacancies for motivated young people.

Training providers have also reported growing numbers of young people seeking out their services, while the North East Chamber of Commerce has thrown its weight behind the issue through the likes of the 100 Days Apprenticeship Challenge.

According to a new poll commissioned by the Sutton Trust charity, more than a third of adults now believe a degree-level apprenticeship would be better for a young person’s career prospects, while just over a fifth (21%) backed university study as the best option.

Separate research from the charity, however, suggests many parents are still likely to see the apprenticeships as the second best option.

More than half (56%) of mothers and fathers surveyed said that they were likely to encourage their child to study for a degree, but just 40% said the same about apprenticeships.

And while over half of 11 to 16-year-olds said they would be interested in becoming an apprentice - rather than going to university - if it was for a job they wanted to do, less than a third (31%) said their teachers had discussed apprenticeships with them.

The research also found almost two-thirds of teachers (65%) would rarely or never advise a high-achieving student to consider an apprenticeship.

Conor Ryan, director of research at the Sutton Trust said: “There is a growing appetite for real apprenticeships among young people and the wider public.

“But there are still not nearly enough apprenticeships at A-level or degree standard available.

“It is vital that this gap is addressed.

“Our research has shown that in other European countries, particularly in Germany and Switzerland, three-year good-quality apprenticeships are a serious option for all young people. Despite some recent improvements, we still have a mountain to climb to match ambitions in England.”

More on The Journal's Apprenticeships campaign, which we want YOU to support:

Interest growing in our Proud to Back Apprenticeships campaign

Firms urged to support Apprenticeships campaign

Pledge your support for the campaign by signing our online petition


David Whetstone
Culture Editor
Graeme Whitfield
Business Editor
Mark Douglas
Newcastle United Editor
Stuart Rayner
Sports Writer