I know it’s many parent’s nightmare when their child questions the value of university, especially if their school education has been invested in, either at an international school or a boarding school in the UK. But I would urge you to discuss any doubts your son or daughter might have about university, fully and frankly, and take time to explore what are now myriad alternative options.
When I made my decision not to go to university five years ago, tertiary education was a conveyor belt option unequivocally expected by my academic girls’ school. I was challenged by my teachers, my friends and my friends’ parents. University was a rite of passage we were expected to follow, despite soaring tuition fees and no assured prospects of fulfilling and well-paid employment after graduation.
My own parents were non-judgmental but were quite clear that if I chose not to go to university, I should nevertheless make a useful and purposeful contribution to society. However, access to information about alternative career pathways were scarce then, and what started as an initial blog about my experiences has grown into a comprehensive resource and campaigning voice for young people exploring alternatives to university – Uni’s not for me (UNFM) www.unisnotforme.com.
Five years down the line, things have changed considerably. In 2015 Uni’s not for me partnered with YouGov to canvas public opinion on what society would most benefit from in economic terms. Only 7% said ‘more graduates’ while a significant 57% said ‘more young people trained through NVQs, apprenticeships or on the job training’. It felt to me then that the tide was beginning to turn and an alternative to a degree need no longer feel like a second class option.
Commenting on A Level results in the same year, Mary Curnock Cook, chief executive of Ucas and herself a university graduate in her 40s, said students could no longer assume a good degree would result in a well-paid, interesting career. And when the high mistress of St Paul’s Girls’ School, one of the best performing school in the country, warned that bright girls may consider university “a waste of time”, the media paid attention. University is wonderful for many things, but so are many of the alternatives. Implicit in the small number of people who believed we need more graduates is the fact that we already have far too many.
However, many people are still unaware that securing a successful career in professions like law, accountancy and engineering are entirely possible without a degree, and increasing numbers of bright young people are choosing to learn and earn, and are proving formidable competition to their graduate peers.
Initiative, passion and self-motivation are the qualities leading UK employers most value in employees aged 25 or under, according to research we undertook last year. Not a single employer surveyed said it would matter if a job candidate went to university – as long as they displayed those characteristics. More than 50 organisations, including EY, Clyde & Co, The Berkley Group, River Island Clothing, Pimlico Plumbers and Pret a Manger took part in the research.
More than half of respondents (56%) said initiative and passion are the qualities they most value, while a sixth (16%) said self-motivation. Energy came next (12%) followed by integrity (8%) while ability to learn quickly, reliability and time-keeping, honesty, dedication, loyalty, charm and goal orientated scored equally at 2.13%.
Well known success stories of people who did it without a degree include Laura Tenison, founder of JoJo Maman Bebe, food campaigner, Jamie Oliver, handbag queen, Anya Hindmarch, and Rosie Hardy, photographer to the stars. But ordinary people are doing it too, like UMFM Society members, Zoe Ledsham, who was a legal trainee at leading law firm, Clyde & Co and now qualified as a solicitor working at Bond Dickinson, Kayleigh Anderson, EY apprentice and Josh Uwadiae, a fitness guru.
In the early days of UNFM, I was asked to speak on local radio and was so nervous, I could barely string together a logical thought. Since then I’ve learnt to think through the three things I want to say and not deviate! I’ve argued against Lord Willetts on BBC Radio 4’s ‘World Tonight’; organised a debate in association with the London Times on the merits of going to, and not going to, university; met Government ministers to explore how best to raise awareness of apprenticeships; and have met, and been supported by, some of the most prolific business leaders in the UK. Most importantly, I have been lucky enough to be part of a growing community of ambitious, articulate and inspirational young people who decided uni wasn’t for them and are making huge successes of their lives. Entrepreneurs, lawyers, accountants, fitness gurus, artists, photographers and film makers are just some of those who now make up UNFM Society, our social, networking and professional development platform.
Schools are measured by league tables based on pupils’ exam delivery – it seems to me that very few of them teach you how to survive on your wits, and argue for what you believe in – and I don’t believe these tightly defined measurements are helpful in terms of delivering a healthy and balanced national economy. A balanced economy requires a balanced and committed workforce, whether you’re a high level economist or highly skilled plumber. We should invest in, and celebrate, all those who contribute to healthy, functioning lives.
My final point is simply on how we define success. Technically, this is the accomplishment of a clearly articulated objective. Failure: simply not achieving success. But if a starting point is a dream of 13 A stars and the reality is 10 As (still brilliant in my view), you might argue this as a failure. Conversely, if the dream is to pass an exam no one ever thought you could, then achieve a C grade and are able to apply that resilience in the workplace, even without a degree, that’s success. Five years ago, few people would have agreed with me. In 2017, when a £50K debt is considered the norm for a graduate and employers value initiative and passion above else, many more do.
Uni’s not for me’s 10 point check list:
- Is your son or daughter planning to go to university because they want to, or because that’s what you or their school want them to?
- Are they passionate about a particular subject? If so, and really want to spend three or four years exploring that subject, then university is almost certainly right for them.
- Even so, have they explored all other options? Careers in accountancy, law and many other professions don’t require a university degree.
- Do you think society will make negative judgments if they don’t go to university? UNFM is working to bust the myth that learning begins and ends with formal education. Learning is a life-long process.
- Are you concerned they’ll miss out on an incredible social life? To some extent that’s up to them. UNFM Society, a social, networking and learning programme is helping address that.
- Employers are looking for initiative, passion, self-motivation and energy. Factor that in when considering options. Hands-on experience may trump a mediocre degree.
- Have they considered a gap year (but probably not one that involves lazing on a beach in Thailand) to give more time to reflect on their options?
- Are they rushing their decision? They can always go back to uni later in life.
- Do you know the difference between apprenticeships and internships? Apprenticeships give you a national recognised qualification.
- Are you accessing the best possible advice? UNFM can help! www.unisnotforme.com.