Labour proposes 'technical degrees'
Labour leader Ed Miliband has proposed "technical degrees" - putting vocational subjects on an equal footing with traditional academic degrees.
In a speech to an education charity, Mr Miliband said he will work with universities and employers to create such high-status qualifications.
Labour has called for more options for what it calls the "forgotten 50%" who do not go to university.
The Conservatives said his speech contained "no new ideas".
Technical degrees will help to drive a "high-wage, high-skill, high-quality economy," said Mr Miliband.
The proposals from the Labour leader set out an education pathway for vocational rather than academic subjects. It suggests that under Labour, university expansion would be focused on vocational training.
Vocational 'gold standard'
"For too long, governments have believed there is only one way to success through education which is to follow the conventional academic route - to do GCSEs, A-levels, a traditional academic subject at university and then on to a career," Mr Miliband said at the Higher Ambitions Summit in London, organised by the Sutton Trust and Pearson.
Such an academic route is not appropriate for all young people, he argued.
The proposals, announced on Tuesday, outline a way for talented vocational students to progress into higher education, with the creation of "technical degrees".
Mr Miliband pointed towards Germany as an example of how vocational qualifications can be given a high status.
Students would be able to continue working while studying for such qualifications, he suggested.
"This is a new direction for our country, equal status for vocational qualifications from school to university and beyond, equipping our young people with the skills they need and providing our country with a reason to be confident for the future so we can compete with the very best economies in the world in a race to the top," he said.
He said that there is a "real danger of our children doing worse than their parents" and that the economy needs to make better use of young people's talents.
Head teachers' leader Brian Lightman said: "High-status, high-level vocational qualifications have been something of a holy grail in the UK.
"We do need clear pathways for both academic and vocational routes that are equally accepted by employers and offer good job prospects. Having progression routes for vocational careers that start at GCSE level and go up to a degree equivalent is key."
The proposals were welcomed by the EEF manufacturers' organisation as a way of helping to "plug the skills gap and fill the pipeline of talent urgently needed by UK manufacturers".
"While our industry needs graduates, it also needs more talented young people to see vocational-based training as an attractive alternative to academic study," said Tim Thomas, the EEF's head of employment policy.
Rod Bristow, president of Pearson UK, said: "With more than one in five students already going to university with a BTEC, a move to a clearer, technical path into and through higher education - as offered through the Higher National Diploma - is welcome and is what students will increasingly demand."
The emphasis on high-level vocational training marks a dividing line in higher education policy between Labour and the government.
There are plans from the government to expand the number of university places - with an initial 30,000 student places to be funded this autumn and a further 60,000 the following year.
Universities minister David Willetts has said: "Graduates are the engines of our future growth."
Ahead of Mr Miliband's speech to the Sutton Trust, Conservative skills and enterprise minister Matthew Hancock said youth unemployment had risen under Labour and "far too many of our children didn't get the training they needed to succeed".
He said the current government was "leading a skills revolution" with 1.8 million new apprenticeships.