It’s time to break the assumption that university is the best path for everyone

Alan Yarrow
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Is university really the best path for everyone? (Source: Getty)
As thousands of students start to pack their bags, load up their cars and leave the comforts of home behind, the same question arises each year: is three years at university essential to a successful and fulfilling career?
I would argue that it is not. And I’m the living proof! I attended university for a few weeks, but quickly realised it wasn’t for me.
I have always been more practically-inclined than academic. I was just too impatient to start my career – even if it had an unconventional beginning. In my case, this meant selling newspapers at Victoria Station – followed by a 43 year career in the City, which I am now so proud to serve as lord mayor.
I am not claiming that selling newspapers is a better route than university. But I want to challenge the status quo that university is a path everyone needs to go down.
Every year, there are more graduates whose skills don’t match the specifications of the job they either want to get or currently have. Only last month, the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development found that over half of those with a degree are doing “non-graduate” jobs.
It is worrying that so many are not choosing the right degrees to prepare them for the world of work. The number studying foreign languages has dropped by 6 per cent in the last decade, while those completing computer science degrees has fallen by 34 per cent.
This is a major concern for the City and all UK business. How can we conduct business overseas if the next generation is ill-equipped to compete with other nations?
Meanwhile, we all know the background of the best-known entrepreneurs – from Thomas Edison and Alexander Graham Bell, to Richard Branson, Steve Jobs and Bill Gates. They are renowned innovators and business leaders, who left education early to dive into the world of work.
While the City might have a reputation as a conveyor belt for graduates jumping on the milkround for recruitment, it may surprise you that the last census in 2011 showed that a third of City workers don’t have a degree.
I am not saying the merits of university should be ignored – far from it. University offers a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for personal exploration and intellectual stimulation. But students should not simply slip into a degree choice without contemplating where they might end up.
University lasts three to four years. Most careers last 40 to 50 years. There is a big gap in the support our young people receive to think about this major proportion of their lives. I believe that careers gap can only be filled by a closer relationship between business and schools.
Young people are most influenced by their peer group and parents – but they may not provide the broadest and most appropriate careers advice. We in the City have an important role to play in mentoring, training and recruiting tomorrow’s workforce.
Hands-on work experience is invaluable, and we should encourage and support young people to do it, whether by opting for a gap year, internship or spending the summer holidays building valuable contacts that will further their career.
This will ensure they don’t end up as one of those graduates doing non-graduate jobs – yet saddled with graduate debt.
Going from selling newspapers, to selling companies, to selling all the UK’s financial and professional services as lord mayor may sound unlikely – but there are other ways to hone the skills which have served this nation of entrepreneurs, traders and diverse talent for centuries.

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