The point of learning

Dick SearleI don’t always find myself in agreement with Sir Richard Branson, but his interview in the Sunday Telegraph last weekend contained so many trailing hints that I for one am more than happy to take the bait.

Like him or not, Sir Richard is perhaps one of our most famous UK business successes without a university degree to his name.

I guess a man in his position – leading a company with tens of thousands of people talents and backgrounds – has to tread a careful line. However, he clearly implied that our UK higher education system is leading us all a merry dance. He’s undeniably right. As a university graduate – I wholly agree with him.

Consider this: we encourage all our able school leavers to stay away from the workplace, so to speak, for another three years. A recent proliferation of UK universities and non-vocational courses mean an uncompetitive process; something somewhere can generally be found for everyone. At the end of these three years many students are no further fit for the world of work than when they began.

These same students then wake up to the small matter of a five figure debt. It’s quite a head start – trying to land a job at 21 with no vocational skills while deep in debt. And if things look bad for the student, how much better are they for the nation’s businesses and employers?  Not a lot. Who benefits? Someone, somewhere must be laughing all the way to the bank, but not the students, employers or tax payers.

Setting aside for now the reforming job to be done, I suggest that we now urgently accentuate the positive; that we simply encourage more vocational schools, courses and vocational training.

Leading lights in European economies such as Germany and Turkey have not missed this point. Indeed, their manufacturing culture has been indistinct from the practice of vocational training; known to us at one time as apprenticeships. Those countries have not lost their way and are prospering as a result.

We should find a means to do the same; quickly, intelligently and before it is too late. The latest Government campaign – Make It In Great Britain – contains some glimmers of hope. Yours truly has been invited to the table as the Industry Champion for the packaging sector. If the Make It initiative achieves just one useful thing it could be the overhaul of our wasteful education system and the restoration of vocational training to its heart.

I shall not fail to use my voice there to argue these issues vociferously and frequently.

Many thanks again

Dick Searle