Who needs a degree anyway?

(Filed: 23/08/2003) - Daily Telegraph - original

Going to university is not always a passport to a good career, says Peter Wilson
If you failed to make the grade with your A-levels and are desperately making your way through clearing so as to get that vital degree, it might be time to think again. University isn't all it's cracked up to be. Well, not for everybody, anyway.

Forget the fact that going to uni is going to cost a small fortune (debts of 25,000 will soon be commonplace). Forget too that so many courses are badly run - at some institutions the drop-out rate has hit 40 per cent. And focus on the fact that the Government is talking about a national crisis in the numbers of skilled workers.

Couple this with the realisation that a degree is no longer enough to make you stand out from the crowd - soon everyone but Richard Branson will have one - and you'd be forgiven for wondering whether you ought not to give college a miss.

Charlie Hall, 21, an advertising planning executive, certainly thinks so: "I couldn't face the idea of university," he says. "It sounded boring - and I prefer a challenge. Anyway, a degree is not essential to a good career."

Instead of going to university, Charlie went to business college, where he gained a one-year HND diploma in Advanced Business Studies. After that, he got a job in advertising, moving rapidly through various departments.

Two years down the line he's hoping soon to progress to account management and is even thinking of the day he can set up his own agency. "I live with two other non-graduates and we're all pretty ambitious," he says. "We spur each other on."

Or how about the forces? As Prince Harry has shown, you don't need a degree to join the Army as an officer. Recruiting officer Colonel Richard Fawcus says it's not just Harry who is adopting this approach.

"People are realising that universities are becoming really expensive, and that half the universities give them a degree that doesn't carry a huge amount of weight. We are getting more interest from those without degrees than we were five years ago."

To enter the Army at officer level you will need a not too demanding 140 UCAS TERIF points and five GCSEs at grade C or above. But there are other factors that will make you stand out. "Maturity is important, age is not. Coolness, integrity, initiative and of course leadership all help. You need to be able to take people with you," advises Colonel Fawcus.

Someone who demonstrated these attributes is Leon Ayo, 25, of the King's Regiment. A non-graduate upon entering Sandhurst, he has since advanced rapidly to the rank of Captain: "Joining the Army was a form of education - real education," he says. "University doesn't prepare you for the real world. It's a laid-back life, then you have to join the rat-race with no experience."

The benefit to Leon is that already he has had some invaluable experience - he has served in places as diverse as Northern Ireland, Kenya, Borneo and Jordan - and when he does choose to move on, the management skills learnt as an officer are certain to make him desirable to prospective employers.

If you want a big income as soon as possible, there's no place better to start than sales. One popular sector for non-graduates is property sales. Qualifications count for little when personality is key- and you are sure not to be stuck behind a desk for long.

"We're looking for a minimum of maths and English at A-level, but more importantly it's all about people skills," says Peter Rollings, managing director of Foxtons, a large London estate agent.

"You've got to be able to demonstrate enthusiasm and success, whether it be in a club, a sport or some achievement. I didn't go to university, but there's no advantage either way as far as I'm concerned. Those who haven't been are younger and fresher and haven't had three years of not working that hard."

Anyone thinking about breaking into television might be relieved to hear a degree isn't necessary. "Academic qualifications probably don't come into it," says Bella Lambourne, director of human resources at Endemol, a production company.

"We're looking for an inquiring mind and an ease of personality. We value evidence of a real desire to work in television and a history of work experience that proves tenacity, even if it's totally unrelated.

"You need to look at all of the skills you've already acquired and think whether these could be your selling point," she says. "A positive attitude and strong communication skills are key to opening doors."

She predicts a future when senior management is flush with capable non-graduates. And if things don't work out, you can always jump back into line at the UCAS desk.

'What Can I Do With No Degree?', by Margaret McAlpine (Trotman, 9.99).