A-Level Results – What next for young people in Britain?

As A-Level students across Britain contemplate their future, I wonder whether they are being given the best advice by parents, teachers and the media about what to do next?

With a current shortage of university places and jobs for graduates, high dropout rates from students that probably weren’t cut out for academia in the first place, and the BBC reporting that average student debt may reach £53,000 (yikes!) is going to university still the best option for our young people?
 
When I took my A Levels in 1995 I distinctly recall being told that going to university and getting a degree was the only way I could guarantee a bright future, or risk being left behind on the scrapheap. I wasn’t even sure that university was something I wanted to do but when I voiced these concerns to my dear parents I was told in no uncertain terms that ‘dropping out’ wasn’t an option.
 
Like most students I worked hard at university – ending up with a 2:1 in Geography BSc (Hons) at The University of Leeds, and had a fantastic time living away from home and enjoying myself to the full. I managed to maintain the right balance between having fun and putting the work in and I am proud of my degree and the experiences I had.
 
HOWEVER, my Geography degree has been of very little benefit to my career which has mostly been in IT/web/marketing (with a brief sojourn into the music business as a DJ / producer / promoter / record label owner).
 
For example;
 
Sage – no degree needed
 
Upon graduation in 1998, I travelled the length and breadth of the country in search of the ‘holy grail’ – a graduate recruitment scheme with a top employer, only to have my hopes and dreams dashed again and again by what seemed like endless interviews, assessment days and psychometric tests – until I eventually found employment with Sage, a local hero up here in the North East providing tech support to users of their Sage Payroll software.

I spent 2yrs at Sage and the customer service training they provided was first rate and still benefits me to this day. However, when I joined Sage it was slightly demoralising to find that you didn’t actually need a degree to get a job there, and very few of my colleagues seemed to have set foot in a university – although they were all extremely intelligent, quick thinking and with excellent customer service skills, groomed and honed on the job by regular training and tests.
 
British Airways – degree needed
 
After a while, I grew tired of ‘working on the phones’ at Sage and after teaching myself web design in my spare time, was lucky enough to be taken on by British Airways as a graduate trainee web developer / web editor in their Newcastle upon Tyne office.

There’s no doubt I wouldn’t have been taken on as part of a ‘graduate training scheme’ without my degree, but my previous 2yrs work experience and the web design skills I had taught myself in my spare time were ultimately more important and useful to the job. The degree just helped me get through the initial sift of applicants. Sadly, although this was an excellent job, I was one of many staff made redundant by BA as a direct result of the 9/11 attacks which meant the airline was haemorrhaging money and needed to cut costs quickly (staff are always the first to go).
 
An unintended ‘year out’

The next 12 months were spent in and out of employment as I worked intermittently on short term IT contracts, signing on the dole and trying to break into the music business as a DJ / producer getting the first of my records signed to a local independent label, until eventually…

BT Broadband – no degree needed

After realising that I did actually need some money to support my ‘superstar DJ lifestyle’ which hadn’t yet resulted in a huge pay-off, I got a job again in tech support for BT Broadband. This was probably the most depressing period as I hated the job, was only doing it for bit of extra cash until the DJing / music, and again found out that a degree was of no real value or worth to my new employers. Needless to say, I didn’t stick around long before applying for, and getting a job with music development agency Generator…

Generator – no degree needed

On paper, this should have been my dream job. Working in an organisation that helped grass roots musicians (like myself) make it into the music industry whilst I spent my evenings and weekends as a DJ / producer / promoter / label owner. There’s no doubt there was a definite ‘cool factor’ to this job and I learnt a lot during my time, particularly by working alongside legendary North East promoter Jim Mawdsley. There were also lots of highlights, including getting to see Maximo Park and Field Music when they were still unknown outside of Newcastle/Sunderland and (possibly) playing a small part in getting them signed by telling the A&R scouts that travelled up to Generator-sponsored events that they needed to see these bands!

Like many creative industry jobs, the money at Generator was just too low for me and after getting increasingly frustrated that I wasn’t being paid or valued enough for someone with my background, skills, experience (and degree) I left to join local enterprise agency PNE Group where I’ve now been for the past 5yrs (since 2005).

PNE Group / Shell LiveWIRE – degree needed? Maybe…

Although I’m not actually sure if the degree got me the job, I’m 100% certain that it’s all the experience, skills and knowledge I have accumulated along the way since leaving university that has been of most value to PNE in my previous roles working on the voluntaryskills.com website and now as Web Development Executive for Shell LiveWIRE (run by PNE on behalf of Shell).

It’s easy for me to criticise universities when I’ve already got a degree, but that’s not really my point. In recent years I’ve just been increasingly thinking that academia isn’t right for everyone. Yes, education is important but you can learn on the job (incl. apprenticeships) and do evening classes or home study through people like the Open University or for professional qualifications with bodies like The Chartered Institute of Marketing (CIM). Also, instead of saddling yourself with huge debts when you leave university, you be earning money by working for someone else (building up your savings to go towards a home in the future) or even starting your own little enterprise, with free help and funding from organisations like Shell LiveWIRE.

Many people go on about the invaluable experience of going to university which they see as more important than the qualification. However, I’d argue that for much less than £53,000 you can have even more amazing experiences travelling the world, working for yourself, doing charitable work in another country – the list is endless – and at the end of it be an even more interesting and employable person than ‘a.n.other graduate’. Something to think about at least.

Above all, my advice it to keep your options open and to ‘Stay Curious’, living your life in ‘Permanent Beta‘.

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