Steve Jobs, Mark Zuckerberg, Oprah Winfrey and Richard Branson have become unwitting thorns in the side of higher education. Why? They are among the most successful people on the planet and they either never went to university or dropped out.
Nor are they exceptions: a survey by Wealth-X revealed three in 10 billionaires don’t have bachelor’s degrees. Higher education is not the only path to success.
That’s just as well for graduates with aspirations of becoming the UK’s next business tycoon. Securing a job after university is getting harder: the number of university graduates not in education, employment or training in the UK increased by 15 per cent between 2009 and 2018 according to figures from the Office for National Statistics.
Of course, people don’t just pursue higher education in the hope it’ll give them a leg up into a great job with a good salary; they invest in the experience. Students make friends and connections that last a lifetime and meet talented people who share their passions. Clubs, societies and student media offer rich opportunities for budding journalists, producers, comedians, sportspeople and actors.
But when it comes to preparing for life after university, students can be let down. The limited careers advice they receive while studying primarily promotes graduate schemes run by big businesses. But the UK’s business landscape is dominated by small companies. According to the Federation of Small Business, 99 per cent of all private sector businesses in the UK are small or medium-sized enterprises. Options like self-employment and business ownership are also frequently overlooked.
Most would agree university should be a hub for personal and professional development, not a railroad that silos young people into employment. Creating the right environment could foster the next generation of UK creators, entrepreneurs and innovators. In an interview with the Telegraph, Richard Branson said universities should be encouraging and helping students to start businesses while still at university, pointing out that both Larry Page and Steve Jobs felt compelled to leave university to develop their ideas for Google and Apple respectively. Universities should be creating stronger ties with the small business and start-up community. On-campus job fairs and careers events could feature more entrepreneur speakers talking candidly.
What is out there for budding student entrepreneurs?
It’s not all doom and gloom though, student-led initiatives in the shape of entrepreneur societies are doing good work at UCL, Newcastle and LSE. They host talks, invite entrepreneur speakers, and arrange one-to-one sessions with businesses. Could these be better aligned with university careers centres, though?
The universities of Brighton and Cambridge have enterprise programs that offer advice, support and sometimes funding for the best student business ideas, while Exeter has a Student Startup Team that aims to identify and foster the start-up ambitions of business-minded undergrads, like Ali Gillum, who started a business designing, making and selling laptop and tablet covers while studying geography with theology at Exeter.
The University of Westminster is soon to announce the winner of its Big Idea Competition, a university-wide event that challenges students to explore unique and disruptive ideas solving real problems, and fulfilling needs and trends.
We’ve also seen the introduction of entrepreneurship degrees like that offered at Bristol's University of West England, inspired by the pioneering Finnish 'Team Academy' approach. These three-year programmes have no classrooms, lectures or exams. Instead, students are put into teams of 20 and tasked with developing real, income-generating businesses. Students learn how to run and promote their companies while simultaneously attaining bachelor’s degrees.
Of course, to choose that degree in the first place, you would already wish to be an entrepreneur. More must be done to make entrepreneurship known as a valid career path to other students.
In a blog Microsoft mogul Bill Gates wrote that graduating is an achievement to be celebrated. He wrote: “Although I dropped out of college and got lucky pursuing a career in software, getting a degree is a much surer path to success.”
Entrepreneurs are innovators and risk-takers, but that doesn’t mean their skills cannot be taught. Universities can be the ideal environment for young entrepreneurs to experiment, network and test their products on a captive audience. In a society which glorifies business leaders as intelligent and capable individuals, we cannot allow a culture to develop where the entrepreneurial spirit is seen is as incompatible with academic pursuits.