Of course, it was different back then. When I flunked my A-levels and emphatically failed to secure a place at university, it was entirely possible to get a job. Right at the bottom of the pile – but, still, a job.
Yesterday, as television screens and news websites were packed with images of smiling students opening their results, I felt not a twinge – I don't even remember my own results day. As far back as leaving my single-sex grammar school under something of a cloud, I was still thought of as having enough potential to study four subjects at A-level. But studying in the very different atmosphere of a higher-education college, I anticipated the outcome with more accuracy than I applied to the exam papers. Academic work took a distant second place to the student union bar, the bands whose tours took in my haunts in High Wycombe and Aylesbury, and a peroxide-blond punk called Tim. It's ironic that when we skived off classes, we'd catch the bus into Oxford.
There's no glory to be had in announcing smugly to my twentysomething colleagues that by their age I had a job, a car and no debt (other than a mortgage). Nobody likes a show-off; and it's worth noting that the oft-quoted fact about many of our really successful, stratospherically rich entrepreneurs – that they didn't go to university – ignores the other statistic, which is that many of them had a parent die early. Of course, I'm delighted that John and Diane Markwell are thriving, but really, one of them could have died if they'd wanted to give me a proper leg-up.
Ah yes, parental influence.
To be the first in my family to attend university was a tantalising prospect but, in fairness, if my parents hoped for my academic glory, they didn't use the "carrot" method – a car for good results, etc. And if they were disappointed when the Bs, Cs and Ds came through, they didn't show it. Emphasis shifted within a morning to What Happens Next.
Luckily for me, I knew at 14 that I wanted to be a journalist and had inveigled my way into a week at Cosmopolitan magazine a year before my O-levels – so a quick course in shorthand and typing got me on the ladder as a secretary at Country Life where, admittedly, I stuck out like a sore, unaristocratic thumb. All the other secretaries brought in little suitcases on Fridays, as they were travelling home to daddy's rural stately home; I was going back to a shared flat in South London with two girls who split the cost of a single pizza according to how many slices they'd had.
Within a year I'd conveniently "forgotten" my shorthand and become the lowliest features assistant on a fabulous women's magazine. A sub-editor taught me more about erudition and grammar in a few curt red-pencil sessions than I might have learnt from three years on a media studies course. I still speak to the then-editor of that magazine, Josephine Fairley, and she told me yesterday that leaving school at 16 and being the editor of a magazine by 23 was the making of her. Since she went on to found Green & Black's chocolate, she's no slouch as a role model.
Although I have no regrets about not attending university, I can see that for some it's a joyous mix of high-minded study and a lot of socialising. Learning for its own sake is a delightful concept – although this seems a rather outdated understanding of university that few of today's A-level students, with their eyes on a career, as well as educational prize, would recognise.
Did I miss out on the sex, drugs and best-friends-forever that are part of the fabric of student life (I'm told)? Er, no. Although I do remember the shift from being at home with parents downstairs to being in charge of my own rented house without the cushioning years of halls/fellow-student flatshare as a fraudulent take on being a "grown-up"; but the friendships I made in those early shared canteen lunches and drinks after work remain close today.
There's a postscript to this story: I'm now the parent of a teenage boy. My aspiration for him is not academic – I don't want to see him struggle to achieve grades that are beyond the vast majority of boys in local comprehensives, battle to get on a course that probably wouldn't have been his first (or even second, or third) choice and then saddle himself with debt.
The first time we had the "Mum, did you go to university?" conversation I could feel the "awkward" flag fluttering in the breeze. How could I push him to get off the PS3 and into a book when I clearly hadn't bothered? By pointing to the three years between 18 and 21 when I worked very hard for not much money and doggedly followed a career path, I'm able to show him that not going to uni is not the "easy" option, it's a different option.
My third boss bought me an alarm clock as a leaving present, an attempt at humour, rewarding my 12-hour, no lunchbreak, always-on-call year.
I shouldn't let my experience colour his – the job market is very different now. A 16- or 18-year-old boy without many qualifications looking for that first rung on the ladder will look for a long time, and probably in vain. But I do hold out hope for the vocational course and apprenticeship method.
I do understand that even that option isn't available for everyone. I suspect it'll take the modest sums my husband and I might have put towards tuition fees being spent on training.
I get asked time and again for career advice by schoolchildren, media students and interns – should they do a degree/postgrad/journalism specialist courses? There's no easy answer, because in an age when a degree is a base-standard for almost any job above bus driver or cashier, it might seem madness not to sign up. But I still believe there's a place for the entrepreneurial, the ferociously ambitious and the charismatic to enter the world of work in other ways. Even now.
Today, I learned that the college where I flunked my A-levels is now, grandly, Buckinghamshire New University. It clearly has delusions of grandeur, even if I don't.
So all I can say is, both as a person who didn't go to university, and as the mother of a child looking down the barrel of terror about educational excellence, a disappointing set of results isn't the end of the world. It really isn't.
Lisa Markwell is executive editor (features) of The Independent
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