Fiona McCade: I’d prefer my son to choose a trade

We need people with practical skills, as opposed to useless degrees. Picture: Getty
We need people with practical skills, as opposed to useless degrees. Picture: Getty
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PARENTS think a trade trumps a degree for employability, but they still push their kids to go to university. It’s madness, says Fiona McCade.

Can you hear a noise? A sort of thud-thud-thud? That’s the sound of my head banging against a brick wall. My despair comes from reading the results of a survey by the City and Guilds further education organisation, and The Edge Foundation, a charity dedicated to raising the status of technical, practical and vocational learning.

The survey asked 3,500 British parents what type of tertiary education they thought would give their children the best employment prospects. Most thought that an apprenticeship, such as learning plumbing skills, would be best route to a good job. Far fewer believed that a university degree was a guaranteed passport to a successful career. By the time “media studies” was mentioned, only 9 per cent of the parents said they were confident a degree in this field would get their little darlings on to the employment ladder.

So far, so sane. Ever since the unfortunate and unwise demise of the polytechnics, I’ve believed that vocational qualifications have been undervalued in favour of often useless university degree courses.

No, the reason I’m banging my head against a wall is because, even though these parents believe that there is great value in apprenticeships and non-academic further education, even though they feel that in many cases the degree courses their children are taking will make them “not very employable”, even though they think a plumbing qualification would make someone more “highly employable” than a law degree, only 16 per cent wanted their children to do an apprenticeship after leaving school. More than 45 per cent still dreamed of their cherubs going to university.


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City and Guilds and The Edge call this contradiction “a disconnect” between what the parents perceive as excellent employment prospects and their social aspirations for their offspring. I call it madness.

When Tony Blair said he wanted half of school-leavers to go to university, I had already finished my arts degree and was on first-name terms with the dole office staff. Even back then, it was clear that a degree was no longer the insurance against unemployment it had once been.

However, I’m not convinced that employment is, or should be, the point of going to university. Academia isn’t about practicalities; it’s about totally immersing yourself in a subject that fascinates you. Horses for courses, ivory towers for the academics, and apprenticeships and on-the-job training for the practically minded. Not everybody needs, or thrives upon, such a full-on intellectual experience. Tony created a crazy precedent for sending loads of kids – who would otherwise be useful and happy in the workplace – off to waste three or four years doing something that nobody needs them to do.

The day the word “polytechnic” came to mean “second best”, and “university” was suddenly a synonym for “success”, was a sad and misguided one. For the most part, the polys stopped being centres for technical excellence and became third-rate universities.

Now, the good universities continue to cream off the genuinely academic kids and everyone else is left scrabbling around to get letters after their name, often to find out in the end that all their work is for nothing. BA doesn’t just stand for Bachelor of Arts.

Both my husband and I are well-educated but woefully unqualified for anything important. Nobody has us on speed-dial if there’s an emergency. If our kitchen started flooding, I could write a column about it, and probably present an exciting little theatrical vignette on the subject. Mr Me could create an incisive and far-reaching communications strategy for raising awareness of flooding issues, but the only person who could actually get us out of the mess would be a plumber.

We need plumbers. If we didn’t, they wouldn’t be so expensive or take so long to arrive. We need mechanics and electricians. I still don’t understand why nurses need a degree when their most vital skills cannot be learned from books. We need all sorts of people, with different kinds of abilities, to help this world turn, and we have to stop judging someone’s value by their Erdös number.

One of the long-running jokes in the Big Bang Theory is that Howard, the engineer, is less intelligent than the others because he only has a Master’s degree. Of course, none of the scientists in the show could do their jobs without engineers to build their equipment. Even Sheldon must need an engineer occasionally, even if just to fix his toaster, although he would probably only admit it in a parallel universe.

I stand in awe before my mate Peter, who builds, plumbs, electrifies and generally makes stuff work. He wants his daughter to go to university, mainly because he didn’t. I tell Peter that, unless his daughter cures cancer, she couldn’t possibly be a more valuable member of society than her father.

When everyone has a degree, a degree ceases to mean anything, and one thing it has never meant is guaranteed employment.

I honestly don’t want my son to go to university. I’d much rather he learned a practical skill that would mean he was always in demand. Then he can study whatever he likes in his own time (perhaps after making his first million). Besides, the job he says he wants to do requires very little other than the ability to read. In our case, useless, impractical people are producing – without wishing to – useless, impractical children.

When Junior was seven years old, he was playing in the garden while my husband struggled to help Peter build something useful. As a joke, Peter shouted over to him: “Oi, Junior! Come and give me a hand here!” The child pulled himself up to his full four-foot-nothing and replied loftily: “I’m an actor, not a builder.” Then, in character as Michael Caine in Zulu, continued: “Do carry on with your mud pies.”

Can you hear a sort of banging noise?


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