Belfast Telegraph

What next for our current crop of A-level students?

By Kirstie Wright

With the release of A-level results over for another year, a new batch of successful students armed with laptops, alarm clocks, pencils, pens and a saucepan or two will soon take their first tentative steps into a world of lectures, microwave dinners and late night essay-writing.

University is a time of independence and a steep learning curve for many, but the path towards, and promise of, a successful career has become more uncertain for graduates since the recession and decline of the employment market.

In these circumstances apprenticeships, internships, and training may be a more attractive alternative, and in the long run it may be better for our economic recovery.

The task of developing and retaining a suitably trained graduate workforce to serve the local economy has proven to be a difficult task with just 39% of Northern Ireland students graduating in England, Scotland and Wales returning to work here.

There is no guarantee that in all cases they bring the skills needed.

The situation may be improving. The impact of the recession can be seen in the choices made by many pupils with a rise in popularity of STEM subjects for A-level (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics).

This year’s results have shown improvement with 46% of entrants achieving A*-A grades in Mathematics. There have also been record applications to Northern Ireland’s universities.

This will have pleased many STEM advocates, including Employment  Minister Stephen Farry, who in February announced a further 500 undergraduate places for students who wished to study STEM subjects, bringing the overall total to 1200 by 2015.

With companies such as Norbrook, Seagate, Bombardier and many more investing heavily in Northern Ireland, Dr Farry said that these undergraduate places in "economically relevant" STEM subjects would ensure the delivery of the "right skills to support the rebalancing and growth of our local economy", providing valuable jobs and perhaps that elusive first step on the career ladder for appropriately skilled graduates.

It would appear that this message has finally reached careers offices and school corridors. But do we need to be more radical?

While the emphasis on STEM subjects is intended to meet the needs of a growing industry in Northern Ireland, and perhaps prevent some of that ‘brain drain’, consideration must also be given to the nature and size of the tertiary education system in the coming years.

Speaking about the UK tertiary sector, CBI deputy director-general Dr Neil Bentley recently warned:

"We must tackle the perception that A-levels and a three-year degree alone is the only route to a good career. The demand for higher, technical skills will far outstrip the numbers going through the traditional university model alone. Universities are now competing directly with firms for the brightest sixth formers...higher education and business need to raise their game."

Furthermore, an economic forecast produced by the US government has shown that only five of the 30 professions expected to produce the most jobs by 2020 will require a university degree.

While the forecast refers to the US labour market, it at least brings forward an important issue for educationalists and governments in other western countries, including Northern Ireland.

The most relevant issue is not one of equality or the right to a university place, it is about equipping young people for an employment market which has changed dramatically in recent years and meeting the needs of an evolving and growing economy.

While many universities pride themselves on academic prowess, they may find themselves required to change when competing with firms offering 18 year olds on-the-job training, a career, stability and a salary.

Universities of the future may look a lot different from the institutions of today in terms of skills, facilities and the length and range of courses.

Queen’s University Belfast, University of Ulster, Stranmillis University College and St Mary’s University College received a record number of applications this year of over 19,000. The ambition of young people is clear what is now vital is to steer such ambition in the correct direction to benefit the economy, and primarily to benefit the student.

Kirstie Wright is a Cambridge University law graduate and a consultant with Belfast opinion pollsters LucidTalk

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