An unqualified success: multi-millionaires who prove you can prosper without a degree

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What hope is there for the thousands who can't get on a course this year? Plenty, a new rich list suggests

Their legacy may be to donate the word "skillionaire" to the English language.

The "Skillionaires Club", published today, lists 100 people who have made themselves a fortune without ever receiving an academic qualification.

Their success stories have been given added significance this year, with more than 200,000 applicants expected to be turned away from university. The debate continues to rage in political circles over whether the UK is encouraging too many young people to lock themselves into a degree.

All that the 100 have in common is that instead of choosing university they learnt a skill or a trade while working as an apprentice or going to college – that and the fact they have since accumulated vast wealth, making £17.6 billion between them.

Top of the list is Sir Anthony Bamford, the billionaire head of the JCB company. He has already ploughed some of his £2bn fortune back into education, setting up the first of a network of University Technical Colleges which aim to ensure 14 to 19-year-olds who attend also learn a trade.

There are a fair number of celebrities on the list – guitarist Eric Clapton, celebrity chefs Jamie Oliver and Rick Stein, motor racing drivers Sir Nigel Mansell and Sir Jackie Stewart, comedian Billy Connolly and fashion designer Stella McCartney all appear.

It is largely a man's world, too, with only seven women in the top 100. One is the Dragon's Den star Deborah Meaden, who runs a range of businesses including the country's oldest textile mill. After leaving school, she left her home in Somerset to study for a diploma at a college in Brighton, a step she said gave her the confidence to pursue a business career.

Another success is Charan Gill, who travelled to Scotland from India at the age of nine. He left school to become a turner and fitter at a Clydeside shipyard before making his money in the Indian restaurant business.

Of his time as an apprentice, he said: "It helped me to know who my customers were because they were basically the people I met in the shipyard." Now his son has just served a four-year apprenticeship as an engineer – not the traditional route for a former independent school pupil. "He is now going to study for a degree while on day release from work," Mr Gill joked.

The list of Britain's top 100 Skillionaires was drawn up by The Sunday Times "rich list" compiler Philip Beresford for City and Guilds.

Self-starters

49: Charlie Mullins

Fortune £55m

Charlie Mullins knew he wanted to be a plumber at the age of nine. Now the 56-year-old, who runs Pimlico Plumbers – often referred to as the "posh people's plumbers" – is worth £55m, according to the list. "I met this local plumber in north London," he recalls. "He had a car and seemed to have a nice lifestyle and money every day. I bunked off school to work for him."

Aged 15 he started a four-year apprenticeship and then set up his own company, which now employs 180 people, has 150 vans and offers 12 apprenticeships.

He has this advice for school leavers considering what to do next: "If you've got a trade, you'll never be out of work. If you've got an apprenticeship, you can't chop and change. I knew people who were getting more money than me but if I hadn't have signed up for four years I'd have left 1,000 times and they would have got rid of me, too."

63: Deborah Meaden

Fortune £40m

Dragon's Den star Deborah Meaden said her decision to go away to college was the first step along a line that gave her the confidence to become a successful businesswoman.

She launched her own glass and ceramics import company after studying for a diploma at a business college. She is now involved in a wide range of businesses, including Fox Brothers, a luxury woollen cloth manufacturer, to fashion designers. She has called for the creation of more apprenticeships, saying that young people she has recruited at Fox thoroughly enjoy the work they do.

94: Charan Gill

Fortune:14m

Charan Gill came to Scotland from India at the age of nine and left school to be an apprentice in a shipyard. He then became involved in an Indian restaurant, starting at the bottom by cleaning the toilets before working his way up and launching a chain of 17 restaurants which he then sold. He now manages a property portfolio. His son is just completing a four-year engineering apprenticeship – not the traditional post-school route for an independent school pupil. Charan believes the apprenticeship helped him to build up a rapport for those who became his potential customers.

46: Mark Pearson

Fortune: £60m

The country's youngest "skillionaire" is the 31-year-old internet entrepreneur Mark Pearson. He runs MyVoucherCodes, an online service which provides discount vouchers to shoppers. He set up his company after having a "brainwave" while searching for a voucher code for a discounted railway ticket five years ago.

1: Sir Anthony Bamford

Fortune: £2.15bn

Britain's richest "skillionaire" is the chairman of the yellow digger maker JCB. Sir Anthony Bamford, whose wealth is valued at £2.15bn, started his working life with a two-year apprenticeship at Massey Ferguson in France in the early 1960s.

JCB itself is valued at £2bn, but Sir Anthony's family also has private assets including a 4,500-acre Staffordshire estate and a 1,500-acre estate in Gloucestershire.

The Top 20

1 Sir Anthony Bamford (industry): £2.15bn

2 Laurence Graff (diamonds): £2bn

3 John Caudwell (mobile phones): £1.5bn

4 Sir James Dyson (industry): £1.45bn

5 Sir Terry Matthews (telecoms): £1.4bn

6 Jim McColl (industry): £570m

7 Trevor Hemmings (property & leisure): £550m

8 Sir David McMurtry (industry): £450m

9 Sir Arnold Clark (car sales): £430m

10 Steve Morgan (property and construction): £400m

11 John Bloor (industry): £385m

12 David Wilson (construction): £360m

13 Ray O'Rourke (construction): £315m

14 Jack Tordoff (car sales): £290m

15 David Hood (electronics): £250m

16 Michael Clare (property & retailing): £237m

17 John Deere (industry): £210m

18 Michael Oglesby (property): £200m

19 Peter Dawson (truck rentals): £187m

20 Ron Dennis (industry & motor sports): £177m

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