At the end of each summer, with school leavers becoming freshers, I watch the 'university debate' with interest. More than ever, it seems that students are being encouraged to further their study and gain a degree. This is despite the reports of rising tuition fees, raging student debts and a current vacuum in the job market for graduate careers.
But my real interest in the subject is because I didn't go to university. With a good education and strong exam results behind me it was a decision I felt I had had to regularly justify when I was younger - to friends, family, prospective employers - and myself. But now that I am in my thirties I believe the decision was not only the right one for me, but has been more beneficial to my career.
Now, I am not saying that a university education is a waste of time; for most it is a fantastic platform to gain further study, a sense of direction, a step up on the career ladder as well as an opportunity to meet life-long friends. However, what concerns me is that university is seen as being a 'one-size-fits-all' solution to school leavers and as the golden ticket to a glittering career. This just isn't the case.
I did well at school but I wasn't interested in academia and saw exams as a tick-box exercise to get to the next level. I was hungry to get out into the work place, make my own money, make my own successes (and mistakes!), and not be confined to the routine of school. However, the majority of my friends were planning to go to university straight after school and I certainly had the feeling of being "left behind" - as if my decision not to go to university would mean I was on the career scrap heap and destined to never be as successful as my friends with degrees.
I was lucky enough to get a job quite soon after leaving school at the Manhattan Loft Company in London, a job that helped me hone my selling techniques and to get a feel for how business worked. I realise that at the moment, finding a job straight after school is not as easy, and it's wrong that some companies dismiss those without qualifications; for many, a working life can be the complete antidote for why they did not like school or achieve academically. For me, my first job gave me structure, experience and a chance to be myself. This is why at Gift Library we always offer one school leaver a placement each year. I know without my first job I wouldn't be where I am now. My first job taught me entrepreneurial spirit - the idea that you needed to work hard and have some get-up-and-go to succeed.
Although I am sure all of these qualities can be brought out in higher education, for me, it would not have been the case. I would have felt stifled by the environment, but would have also been lost with the lack of timetable and free study. I would have enjoyed learning, but I felt it more important to earn; my sense of achievement at 18 was getting another sale for my company, and earning more commission, rather than gaining grades.
By the age of 21, just when my school friends were entering the work place, I had my own business and was earning good money. Not going to university had not held me back; instead it gave me three years to gain some valuable work experience and the platform to start my own company. I realise this isn't the path everyone takes but I truthfully believe those early years of working, where I learnt on the job, gave me both the confidence and knowledge to work for myself. Starting out as a freelance stylist, I have worked my way up to own my business, employ 12 people, and been in charge of buying stock to balancing the books. My argument is not that this wouldn't be possible if I had a degree; instead I want to show what can be possible without one.
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