There are very few who would argue that educating future generations isn’t a positive thing. But in the face of spiralling costs and an increasingly crowded job market, the precise value of a degree has come into question. Much noise is being made at the moment about ensuring the next generation have the required skills and are ‘work-ready’, and sometimes it seems like this isn’t something that is currently being obtained in higher education. But does this mean a degree is no longer of value in building successful businesses?
“I think people are becoming more convinced that you don’t necessarily need a degree to be successful,” says Matt McNeill, CEO and founder of email, mobile and social marketing solution Sign-Up.to. Particularly within the tech sector, McNeill feels that a lot of the skills enterprises will be looking for aren’t necessarily those that have been learned in an academic context. Moreover, a degree of autonomy and an ability to learn new things, is paramount. “For us it has aways been about looking for the attitude and people who are going to be able to learn the skills as they go along,” he says.
The cost factor can also hardly be ignored. Simon Dolan – the entrepreneur who appeared on The Sunday Times Rich List 2011, authored How to Make Millions Without a Degree and was rumoured to be a serious contender for a dragon spot on the next series of Dragons’ Den – feels that a degree has become too shaky an investment. “Young people are realising that they’re going to come out at the other end with £50,000 – £60,000 worth of debt,” he explains. “It is so expensive to go that the admission numbers in the last couple of years have fallen.”
Susanna Simpson, founder and managing director of Limelight PR, feels that a university education needs to have a significant potential payoff to make the initial outlay worthwhile. “University today is such a huge financial investment,” she says. “For many individuals it is a choice that makes perfect sense to them both personally and career-wise, but from my experience, entrepreneurialism requires so much more than education can offer.”
Dolan, in particular, is a strong advocate of the idea that there is no clear correlation between having a degree and success. “When I started on my journey, university really wasn’t an option so I went out and did other stuff, which is exactly what people should be doing now,” he says. In part, he feels the younger generation has been taught to overvalue degrees, regardless of whether it’s actually a suitable career move for them. He continues, “If you’re not academic, then go and get a job. Forget about uni.”
However, it may not be a case of being suited or unsuited to university – even with the most academically minded individuals, sometimes it’s just a case that a better route to success presents itself. After achieving very high grades, McNeill easily secured a coveted place at Oxford, marking him out as one of the highest fliers in his schoolyear. But by this stage he had already started the venture that would one day act as the holding company for Sign-Up.to and he suddenly realised what an opportunity he had on his hands.
“The internet boom was really kicking off the first time round and I kind of took the view that if I didn’t get in there and make something of it now, I’d probably miss the boat,” he explains. After taking a year out to focus on his enterprise, he rapidly realised the path he was on was leading to brighter things than academia could. He jokes: “I don’t think most of my teachers ever spoke to me again.”
But does he think it has a value in setting an individual apart from the competition?
“Frankly, it’s the last thing I look at on a CV,” says McNeill. “I don’t really use it as a differentiator.” He does feel that in certain technical roles, where very specific skill sets are needed, it can help to set someone apart if they have related academic training. But it doesn’t necessarily carry the value of hands-on experience. “Not having that certainly wouldn’t rule someone out if they had experience.”
However, Olga Nuryaeva, co-founder of business development at online contact lens retailer Lenstore, feels we shouldn’t be too quick to rule out a degree’s value in setting professional people apart. She feels that without the undergraduate degree she earned at Oxford, there’s not a chance she would be where she is now.
“It signalled to my prospective graduate employer that I was intelligent and willing to work hard,” she says. She doesn’t feel that she needed the skills from her degree to carry out the requirements of her job but it definitely did get her foot in the door. “I don’t recall relying on my knowledge of formal logic or the ability to solve Lagrangians at any point during my two years in investment banking,” she says. “But without it, my employer had little evidence to go on when deciding whether I’d be willing to work 16-hour days and be able to learn quickly.”
Ultimately, the measure of success is how you use the resources at your disposal – Dolan feels the focus needs to be on creating your own opportunities while you’re young. “It’s about going out and getting some experience in business and learning when to cut that and say: ‘I’m going to try it on my own’,” he says. Simpson also feels that, while qualifications are very useful, we certainly shouldn’t limit our definition of someone’s abilities solely on whether they have a diploma. “Today’s society provides ample opportunity for people from all walks of life, both in and outside of education,” she says. “It is up to the individual – not the letters next to their name – to create opportunities and make success happen.”