With school leavers facing university tuition fees of up to £9,000 a year and employers complaining about a skills shortage, the UK higher education system is seeing a rise in employer-funded undergraduate study. KPMG, a Big Four accountancy firm, announced this month that it will sponsor 75 school leavers through a six-year programme leading to a BSc in Accounting from Durham University and an accountancy qualification. Students will combine study with work, receiving an annual salary of around £20,000. Morrisons, a supermarket chain, received 500 applications for 20 places on its scheme which combines studying for a BSc in Business and Management from Bradford University and working in the supermarkets' food manufacturing division. Other companies, including Harrods, Logica and Tesco, are also offering employer-funded degrees.
The employer-sponsored model of study is already widespread at the postgraduate level. Large corporate firms pay students' fees for the Legal Practice Course or a law conversion programme and also provide them with a maintenance grant. Other employers, such as the Bank of England or the Institute of Fiscal Studies sponsor masters degrees for some of their employees, while accountancy firms and banks pay for staff to gain relevant professional qualifications, for example Chartered Financial Analyst certification.
The government has praised the introduction of employer-sponsored undergraduate degrees. David Willetts, the Minister for Universities and Science, commented on KPMG's degree plans: "I warmly welcome this new scheme as it provides a new entry route to a prestigious profession for people from a wide range of backgrounds...It's the kind of initiative that we hope will flourish as we reform higher education." It is thought that employer-sponsored courses will promote social mobility, increase access to university and reduce skills shortages.
Employers also recognise that with tuition fees rising significantly from autumn 2012, many talented students will choose not to go to university. Recruiting bright school leavers and providing them with a clear career path will ensure that firms are tapping into a deep talent pool. At the moment, only 31 per cent of graduate recruiters operate a school leaver programme, but about one-fifth of those who don't are currently considering introducing one.
However, there are concerns that employer-sponsored degrees force school leavers to make a well-defined career choice at a very young age. Early specialisation could limit their skills, making it more difficult to change careers if they later wish to. School leavers will also study a very narrow range of subjects and therefore will risk missing out on unexpected tangential learning opportunities that come from studying broader courses.
The only real problem that I can envisage here is that young people will get locked into a career that they come to realise is not for them. Perhaps there should be a legal restriction on the number of years that an employer can retain an individual if they sign up to a scheme before the age of 21.
**Tom Davenport -**University of Cambridge
This is a horrible idea. Employers offering these schemes exploit young people's fears to force them into a truly Mephistophelian bargain: if their intellectual development at university causes them to realise that accounting (say) is tedious and they'd be far more fulfilled as a teacher, or a writer, or an entrepreneur, then - well, tough.
**Mike Webb -**University of Oxford
Obtaining a free legal education can only be of benefit to students, and will become even more advantageous as we enter the age of £9,000 a year tuition fees. If the downside is that your employer dictates your curriculum and you have to commit to a set period at the firm, it seems a very small price to pay.
**Mike Mutsaers - **London School of Economics