15 August 2023

University isn’t the only solution – we need to encourage exploration through work experience

By Daniel Harrison

This Thursday, anxious Sixth Formers across the country will be opening up their A-level results and wondering what to do next.

Perhaps dejected by headlines about graduates saddled with debt struggling to find meaningful employment, many will wonder if university is their best option.

As the CEO of one of the UK’s largest wealth management firms I know the requirements of the modern workplace. And as someone who didn’t go to university straight out of secondary school, I know success can be achieved without it.

To continue or not with education is a big decision for young people and their families, and an increasingly expensive one. The Institute for Fiscal Studies estimates that one in five university graduates would actually be better off if they hadn’t gone to university. That works out as over 150,000 students per year.

With this in mind, the prevailing notion that a university degree is the only ticket to prosperity is a convention that should be challenged. The pursuit of knowledge through higher education is, of course, generally of great value to society and does increase the chances of success for the majority who choose that path.

But there are other routes, especially if you don’t yet have a grip on what you think you want to do in the workplace.

Indeed, sometimes it’s better to dip your toe in and experience work in order to help refine your thinking or spark some previously unknown interests.

Moreover, with the changing nature of our economy, the ability to absorb new skills quickly and think outside the box is becoming an even more important skill to stay ahead.

To pick a timely example, skills like coding were the future a few years ago but now developments in AI have completely disrupted the tech industry, changing the skill set and number of staff needed to be successful. Instead of betting a three or four-year degree on the next big skill, it might make more sense for our young people to bed-in to work with a growing business to stay closer to evolving trends.

Too often businesses are averse to giving opportunities to kids who haven’t gone to university, but I know the fallacy of this through my own experience. My first job was working the tills at my local cinema. That was the first rung on my ladder and I’m grateful for it. It taught me all sorts of practical business skills at a young age, while also piquing my interest in how businesses are run. I used some of those skills to help get into marketing in the financial services industry, where I’ve since made my career.

I then completed a university degree whilst working, so that my studies complemented my career, refining and enhancing my skills further and giving me that extra edge.

The point being, we need to increase the number of pathways for our children, not force them into a funnel before they’re ready.

The Government should work with the private sector to create these pathways for kids and get them up to date, practical skills. At my firm, True Potential, many of our workforce haven’t been to university and instead come in straight from school. Through our Academy system we’ve been able to give them on the job training that is tailored to the industry as it is today, not as it was four of five years ago. I’m happy to say that one of these bright sparks with an intense interest in AI is now playing a leading role in our research and development wing and thriving, all without a typical university education.

By restructuring our education system to provide more alternatives to university for young people, we can reinvigorate our economy and workforce.

By encouraging exploration, we can hopefully create a new generation of curious minds with entrepreneurial flair who are willing to consider new approaches to old problems and give our slow-growing economy a much-needed kick in the backside.

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Daniel Harrison is the chief executive of True Potential.

Columns are the author's own opinion and do not necessarily reflect the views of CapX.