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Fees or not, education must fit the job market

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My best student job was working as an operating theatre porter in my local hospital. In fact I almost canned civil engineering for medicine as a result.

The money was not great, the hours were long and cleaning the theatres after hip replacement operations. . . you can imagine. But watching surgeons at work was fascinating and there was a great social scene.

Compared to some of the jobs I did, the hospital was heaven.

Packing cheddar cheese in plastic wrappers, bottling white spirit and screwing the lids on meths containers were not big on variety.

I did actually venture into the concrete repairs market for a while and spent many long days fixing expansion joints and water-proofing concrete on pedestrian subways. What forced me into the graduate job market was having to break out concrete from the soffit of a basement - in the dark, dressed in protective clothing with only halogen lights and hot water pipes for company.

The debate over top-up fees has prompted much reminiscence and reflection on student days. It is clear that students have always battled with debt and been available to do some terrible jobs. A quick poll in and around NCE's office highlighted a range from work in pubs, factories and offices to working in a betting office and a sewage farm.

It also revealed graduation debts ranging from zero to £9,000. One engineer I spoke to recently confessed to racking up a £3,000 debt in the 1960s - equivalent to about £25,000 today.

Certainly the current top-up fee proposals will see students starting careers owing large sums but for me the issue is not simply about the cash. Fundamentally I simply do not understand why the government is so wedded to seeing 50% of the population go to university. I do not believe it will create a better trained workforce.

The cost of the system has rocketed while the actual end result has been devalued. University used to be a great prework foundation on which to build a career and develop as a young person. Making the break from childhood to become a self-reliant young adult was the really exciting part.

Yet what we seem to have created is simply an extension of schooling. With few grants many students continue to live at home so miss out on the personal development benefits while chasing qualifications that the real world demands but doesn't necessarily need.

I would never discourage anyone from studying, but I believe policy needs to be rethought to offer more appropriate post-school development.

In construction, for example, there is great need for bright, well rounded graduate engineers. But there is also a huge need for bright, well-rounded school leavers. Yet the current skills shortages shows education is failing to deliver.

So even though the government scraped through its crucial vote in the Commons last Tuesday, the debate over topup fees is unlikely to subside.

Rather than getting bogged down in this row, the government should be looking more critically at what education and training is really needed to sustain the UK economy.

And as an industry feeling the brunt of the current education crisis, construction should be making its voice heard.

Antony Oliver is editor of NCE

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