Fees backlash hits university admissions – will PR apprenticeships fill the gap?

The number of students taking places at British universities declined by 12% last autumn, as thousands of students voted with their feet and decided against pursuing a degree. Given the crippling £9,000 a year tuition fees it’s no great surprise.

London Metropolitan University Graduation 2012 - will these become a thing of the past?
Worst hit was London Metropolitan University – London’s biggest higher education institution – which saw a 43% drop in admissions. The Telegraph reports that according to the Universities and Colleges Admissions Service (UCAS), numbers slumped by between a quarter and a fifth at Bolton, East London, Greenwich, Leeds Metropolitan and University Campus Suffolk.

Although it could be argued that it’s fair for students to contribute in some way towards their education, £9,000 fees per year plus living expenses mean that students can expect to graduate with a £60,000 debt. No wonder so many are put off the idea.

What effect will the fall in graduate numbers have on the PR industry?

Well, while there appears to be plenty of supply of graduates right now, a sustained reduction in the intake of university students could be harmful in the long run. In three years’ time, we’ll hopefully be out of a recession and graduates may find that they are suddenly in short supply.

Of course, that’s the macro view. Whether they are more or less likely to want a career in PR remains to be seen.

Personally, I’ve always had a nagging thought at the back of my mind about whether a degree is the best preparation the public relations industry. According to the PRCA, 89% of people working in PR have a degree. It has been the de facto minimum entry standard for some time, although now most employers are increasingly putting value on experience and this – combined with excess supply of graduates – has resulted in the rise of internships. I have to say, I think a graduate can learn more from a couple of good quality, decent length internships than they can from many degrees.

I graduated with a Marketing (Major) and Human Resource Management (Minor) degree 15 years ago. I’m sure things have changed quite a bit, but I found that the Marketing element of the degree wasn’t particularly interesting or challenging; I found the HRM element much more stimulating (I just didn’t want to be a personnel officer).

Sure, the quality of degree courses and universities varies. Like many of my peers, I think that having a PR degree isn’t necessary either (in my experience, journalism graduates are often better prepared for public relations than PR or Marketing graduates).

But given the increase in cost of university education, the PR industry should be thinking about whether an obsession with degrees is the best way forward. There’s been some debate about PR apprenticeships, which certainly look at face value like a viable option.

The PR apprenticeship scheme is being created PRCA, Pearson in Practice, the Council for Administration, and Edexcel on behalf of the National Apprenticeship Service. Apart from being a cheaper way of learning, apprenticeships offer a more relevant and practical way of learning the essential skills to start a career in PR.

Yes, they’re unproven at the moment and ensuring quality standards may be a problem (but surely this can’t be worse than the university system). My main concern is whether the people that are likeliest to become the best at PR know that they want to work in PR at the age they start an apprenticeship. This is a call to action for the public relations industry to PR itself better. We need to attract the brightest minds to ensure that the industry thrives.

It’s very early days for PR apprenticeships, but they could be the answer to the shortage of good quality graduates entering the industry. Either way I think it’s about time we became less tied to university education, unless the government rethinks its policy on tuition fees.

PR Higher Apprenticeship – What is PR? from Pearson in Practice on Vimeo.

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