Thursday, 2 September 2010

Does university matter?

I left school at 15. It’s a statement that makes me sound older than I am but it’s true. Although I had a very good set of O Level results, I decided I wanted to go into the family business. But I also did a part time Business Studies course at Cornwall College so that, when I changed my mind and decided I wanted to go in to higher education after all, I had a qualification that allowed me to take that step.

This year’s A level results are now in but there are thousands of students who are going to struggle to get to university because of a shortage of places. In a final bizarre twist, the last government set a target of getting 50 percent of young people to university but then fined universities who expanded to meet that challenge.

Does education matter? It is the title of a book by Alison Wolf and at a time when students are expected to pay towards their university education it has become a salient question to ask. There is evidence that a good school age education counts for much more than university. That was certainly my own personal experience.

That is not to take away the importance of our academic institutions. They are centres of excellence, have a vital role in rebalancing our economy towards new industries and are absolutely the right choice for many young people to continue their studies, especially those who want to enter the professions.

But they are not the only choice. I think there is a danger that by over-emphasising university education you can create the impression that those who don't go to university are somehow a failure. They are not and we need those young people to understand that there are other routes to success in life.

I recently met a group of teenagers who had had a tough start but were getting their lives back together. I told them that some of the most successful people in the country suffered adversity early on in their lives and that, with the right support, they could turn that experience to their advantage.

Last week I visited a project in Redruth called Real Base Training. It aims to take teenagers who are falling behind at school or college and inspire them with the idea that they could set up their own business and be their own boss. They have a cluster of new businesses which are given support and mentoring at the centre. Sometimes if you take a young teenager and put them in a working environment their confidence blossoms in a way that is simply not possible in a formal learning environment and so you can help them on the road to success.

Someone once told me that you don't have to be clever to be smart. He was right and we need to encourage approaches which show young people how to use their talents.