Gina Davidson: Economy needs balance of skills

Having a degree isn't the only way into a successful career. Picture: Ian Rutherford
Having a degree isn't the only way into a successful career. Picture: Ian Rutherford
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SUCCESS by degrees. That’s how we’re measuring how well Edinburgh is doing these days: rolled up scrolls waved around by enthusiastic – and no doubt exhausted – young people in black gowns and mortar boards outside the McEwan or Usher halls. People who can say they gained a “Desmond” (a 2:2) on their CV.

To be fair it’s only one of the measurements of the city’s health, wealth and prosperity used by the council to attract investors but it’s one that has been leapt upon to signal that we’re all high achievers now; all part of the “knowledge economy”.

It makes a university education sound like the be-all and end-all

It sounds great news that the proportion of the Edinburgh workforce with a degree-level qualification has risen from 46 per cent just two years ago to 54 per cent. Except, of course, if you’re not one of the 54, then it might leave you feeling somewhat deflated. And you’re most likely not to be part of that big percentage if you’re from a poorer background – despite there being no tuition fees to pay.

A few years back a study by the National Union of Students Scotland discovered that in 2010 Edinburgh University had only 91 “poor” students – ie from deprived backgrounds – out of a total of 17,570.

Last year it was revealed that the same university now wanted 50 per cent of its students to be foreign because of course they pay fees. No doubt that 91 figure will fall as a result.

And a recent report, ironically by Edinburgh University researchers, for the Economic and Social Council suggested that the abolition of fees in Scotland had meant initiatives to widen access to poorer students had stalled. Yet in England – where tuition fees are £9000 – numbers from deprived backgrounds had increased.

Of course all universities say the problem lies not with them – they’re offering bursaries, doing outreach work, targeting poor students – but with the school sector, as the children are not meeting the required academic standards to get in in the first place.

And as has been reported recently, literacy standards are on the decline in primary schools – a decline which is always faster in areas of deprivation.

So the idea that all is rosy because we’ve more degree-educated folk in the city’s workplace is singularly narrow. It does nothing to cast light on the standards of education reached by the people who are schooled in Edinburgh.

Furthermore it makes a university education once again sound like the be-all and end-all.

This week though is Scottish Apprentice Week, which is aiming to sell the benefits of getting an apprenticeship to those whom universities won’t consider as well as the benefits of hiring apprentices to businesses.

The council has been a leading light on apprenticeships with its Edinburgh Guarantee scheme but interestingly a report by engineering firm Selex has shown that when high school-aged youngsters are told about apprenticeships nearly 50 per cent are more likely to consider one as a career option rather than university.

It also showed that only seven per cent thought that an apprenticeship was a second-class choice, which is a huge shift in attitudes compared to just a few years ago.

If young people are seeing the potential in apprenticeships and if employers like Selex, Brewdog, Diageo, BT, Balfour Beatty and many more can see the potential too, it’s surely time to have a more balanced view of the success of our economy – giving value to all people in the workforce no matter how they got there.