A degree is not the only way

Lots of successful people have never been to university. And many young people would be better off following their example, says Michael Sanderson
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Question: What have the following famous people got in common? Shakespeare, Dickens, Beethoven, Picasso, Shaw and Churchill. Answer: Not one of them went to university.

Question: What have the following famous people got in common? Shakespeare, Dickens, Beethoven, Picasso, Shaw and Churchill. Answer: Not one of them went to university.

I make this point following the traditional wailing and gnashing of teeth in the careers and education industries following the publication of the A-level and GCSE results. Young people, if they are influenced by the acres of newsprint devoted to the university clearing system, may think that their useful lives are over if they did not get the right grades for access to higher education.

But, as the above examples prove conclusively, nothing could be further from the truth. University is not the only bridge to a successful career. Yes, it is one of them, but quite clearly, as my own industry has proved time after time, it is not the only route to a bright future. What worries me most about the emphasis on university education is the implicit message that post-16 vocational training, earning as you are learning, is somehow a second- class form of higher education. It is not. And it is time that we started telling more of our students that this is the case.

Many young people would be far better off joining a modern apprenticeship scheme at one of our worldbeating companies such as Rolls Royce and Jaguar, than spending three largely wasted years on an overcrowded media studies course at the University of Grimethorpe with little or no job prospects at the end of it.

They cannot all be television presenters in our Big Brother culture. Someone has to make the cars, planes and trains, build the roads and bridges and generally keep the country moving. The London Eye is a major tourist attraction, but it would not exist without British engineers.

There is no magic panacea in continuing in full-time education until the age of 21. In the world of lifelong learning, many youngsters develop and mature much quicker by starting their careers at the age of 16 or 18. We offer apprenticeships and training with national qualifications for both these age-groups, but we also offer graduate apprentice schemes for university students. Indeed, we are about to launch the first national portable graduate apprentice scheme for our industry this autumn, with recognised competencies and skills.

The point I am making is that not all youngsters benefit from an academic university education and careers advisers should really be making this clear to students when they are making their post-16 choices. Teachers and careers advisers are simply kidding students if they tell them that they are automatically better off by staying on at 16 and going on to university.

In certain professions, like law, civil service and media, there is evidence that an Oxbridge degree does help. But in industry, that is simply not the case. Ability and experience will out. Only in the past few weeks, Alsthom, the Anglo-French transport and power group building Sir Richard Branson's 140mph tilting trains, appointed Paul Barron as its UK president.

Paul started on the shop floor as a 16-year-old apprentice over 30 years ago. Sir Richard (I wonder whatever happened to him?) also missed out on university, but went on to do something or other in the business world.

When both Paul and Sir Richard were leaving school, it was accepted that university was not the be all and end all. Bright youngsters left at 16 and went for a career that interested them. Admittedly, there was a much larger manufacturing sector back then. But even today, as the national training organisation for engineering manufacture, we represent firms employing some 2 million people.

British firms, whether it be MacLaren in Formula One or British Aerospace on the European jet fighter, still train and employ the best engineers in the world. That is why all Formula One cars are built here. Britain developed most of the ground-breaking inventions of the last century: television, radar, the jet and the computer. Some were developed by graduates, some were not.

This will also be the case this century. Winston Churchill once said that headteachers had powers that prime ministers could only envy. It is time that heads started to use those powers to extend their pupils' horizons to the variety of career choices that are now available to them.

The writer is chief executive of EMTA, the Engineering Manufacture Training Authority