Are vocational qualifications a better option than university?

After graduating with a degree in English and facing a stagnant graduate job market, Amy Ross resorted to applying for basic administration work to no avail. Now studying AAT with the support of her employer, Price & Company, she offers her advice to students faced with the difficult decision of either going to university or taking a vocational qualification.  

In a recent article for Career Geek Jane Scott Paul, Chief Executive of AAT, stated: ‘In the UK, pushing everyone through the university system has become the norm because it is thought to be the best way to help people break into the working world and to have a long and fruitful career.’

She also says that schools project university study as the only route into further education.  I couldn’t agree more with this idea, but I do think there is a lot more to university study than simply qualifying for a career.  My path to being an AAT student has been a somewhat deviating journey that has enabled me to see both sides of this recurring argument for and against university education.

With the increase in tuition fees, I think we have changed the way we think about higher education.  With so many young graduates unemployed or in non-graduate jobs it is easy to see why there is an increasingly negative view on university study.  Indeed, some degrees actually seem detrimental to the career hunt (i.e. the ‘Mickey Mouse’ degrees).

The perils of graduating in a recession

I graduated in 2010 with a Bachelors degree in English, expecting to step straight into a graduate position, bypassing the ‘bottom rung’, as it were.  But my university education sat directly in the recession and the career competition was not only from fellow 2010 graduates, but also those still unable to find jobs in 2009 and 2008.

Like most, I spent hours each day applying for graduate schemes and rarely hearing back at all.  I took a temporary job in retail (in which I ended up working for two years) and began applying for A-Level and GCSE entry level administration work, again to no avail.  The feedback on these jobs was that I ‘lacked the required office experience’.

Landing an accountancy traineeship without Government funding

Three years on, I am now studying Level 3 AAT at college, having finally managed to get a trainee position with an accountancy firm.  However, this was a huge commitment on the part of my employers because, as a graduate, I do not qualify for apprenticeship funding.  With the Government supporting apprenticeships so strongly, it is understandable that companies favour non-graduates for trainee roles.

Indeed, recent data from the Financial Skills Partnership shows that firms believe school leavers have more realistic salary expectations and a greater loyalty to employers than graduates. So, in the career race, my decision to go to university seems to have put me in a position that is somewhat lagging.  But there is so much more to university than simply getting on the career ladder.

Why I don’t regret going to university

There is no escaping the fact that there is a lot of fun to be had and plenty of new like-minded friends to make – my old house mates are now my best friends.  If you throw yourself into the university community, there are some amazing opportunities to experience, from special lectures to trips abroad.

More than this, it’s the first opportunity most 18-year-olds will have to experience independence, learning crucial life skills like budgeting and cooking (and cleaning up after, of course!).  There is no longer a parent to push you into particular decisions – it is your responsibility to attend lectures and do your studying and to spend your money appropriately (or not, as the case may be).

Nonetheless, there is still the safety net of parents, as well as loans and grants to ensure that you are supported throughout.  I like to think of my time at university as a practice run at independence.  I have definitely taken the lessons I learnt in this period and translated them into a fully independent lifestyle.

My advice to students torn between going to university and taking a vocational qualification

If I could go back to 2007 and make my decision again, would I do things differently?  Maybe.  The advice I would give any prospective students would be to seriously consider your options.  Choose a course that has career prospects (think of doing a vocational course) and do as much work experience and networking as possible.

If you are unsure as to whether you want or need to go to university, take a year out.  But still remember to have fun if you do go – you’ll never have an opportunity like it again.

Amy Ross is a current AAT student studying Level 3 and works as a Trainee Accounting Technician at Price & Company. Interested in studying AAT? Check out the AAT forums where there is a helpful ‘Is AAT right for me?’ section.

Amy Ross is an accounting technician and former AAT student.

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