Do you need to go to university?

6 February 2012


Although I would argue that entrepreneurialism is more a personality trait than an acquirable skill, claiming that university is unnecessary and irrelevant is a narrow-minded argument.

Contrary to the popular caricature of the typical beer-swilling, nocturnal student, there are many undergraduates who approach university with the right attitude; willing to take on the now huge financial burden themselves without parental support, and who are not there to drink away three years of their lives.

Even when I went to university 20 years ago, there were significant expenses to consider. I took out a student loan as my family could not afford to support me and this was supplemented with paid work in university holidays.

I was never under the impression that my degree was an entitlement and so I tried to maximise the opportunities that were offered. I suspect the soaring cost of a university education will serve to focus students' minds on the primary reasons they are there.

As I initially decided to pursue a career in law, a degree was essential. Since leaving the legal sector, I've realised that university gave me a vital set of skills for setting up my own business.

The depth of thinking, rigorous research and long hours of hard work prepared me in a way that school learning could not. And I use my intellectual and professional legal training every day in running my business, be it in the analysis and drafting of documents, negotiating with suppliers or the preparation and delivery of presentations.

University can widen your pool of contacts and help you realise talents and hone skills – whether that's by writing for the student paper, organising events or taking on a leadership role in the student union.

Business ideas, of course, come from within and are inspired by life experiences, but only a small part of success in business can be attributed to the novelty of an idea or product. Success comes from the hard work and commitment of the people behind the business and, for me, that work ethic was instilled in me while at university.

The world is a tougher place now, and rising levels of UK adult and youth unemployment have increased the pool of jobseekers. As an employer who has to narrow down piles of CVs, I tend to favour (though not exclusively) those with excellent university degrees, because it shows evidence of commitment, hard work and ambition. This is because students are not spoon-fed but left to research and learn independently to a great degree, and are wholly responsible for meeting deadlines.

Caroline Kendal is founder of kids' fashion website


Last year, a survey from Swansea University found that men with a degree can expect to see their lifetime earnings increase by £141,539, much higher than a male conterpart without a degree; for women the amount is £157,982. That's about £5,000 a year over a 30-year career.

Meanwhile, the Office for National Statistics reports that one in five graduates earns less than the average of those who went straight into work from school with as little as one single A-level.

As someone once said, you can prove anything with statistics. The most important question to consider is what is your real reason for attending university? Is it to genuinely better yourself and improve your chances of a better career? Or is it to delay finding a job and keep partying for a few more years?

Either way, is it worth £30,000 debt? From September this year, the price of a three-year course at most universities will rocket from £10,125 to £27,000, while a four-year course could cost £36,000.

While extensive further education is essential for some careers, such as those in the medical profession, for many others life experience is just as important and a growing number of degrees are seen as a waste of time by potential employers.

I achieved a few GCSEs and A-levels and briefly considered university, although by that time I was working full-time in a supermarket as I had always wanted to earn money as soon as possible – I even sold sweets in the school playground.

Ordering cheese and bacon for a supermarket wasn't the career for me, so I walked straight into several building societies with a CV, including those I did work experience with a few years earlier, which proved important.

Three out of four offered me a job and through hard work and effort by the age of 21 I was a successful mortgage adviser, having started on the till two years earlier.

Might I have got there any sooner with a degree? No, because I would've been 21 by the time I'd left university anyway and instead of walking away with debt and no guarantees I had three years' earnings and genuine financial services experience in the City.

Many of those who leave university often expect not only a higher entry salary but also an elevated position. But many employers prefer to nurture young employees and teach them the ropes before they become too set in their ways.

Let's make this clear: I'm not against university. However, you don't have to go university to be successful, and going doesn't guarantee success. I started at the bottom and worked my way up. As Alan Sugar reportedly said: “I don't think the outcome would have been any different for me and I would perceive three years at university as a waste of time. I would have already made £200,000 by then. I'm a commercial person, not an academic.

Kevin Carr is chief executive of the Protection Review and managing director of Kevin Carr Consulting

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