As Bill Gates courted Tony Blair this week and lauded the virtues of computers in schools, he sounded like a great champion of formal education. But many will have learnt a different lesson from the success of the world's best-known college drop-out. It's along the lines of: "Want to be a billionaire? Well, don't worry if you flunk your degree or don't even finish school. Academic failure may even be an asset for those seeking super riches."
Gates, who dropped out of Harvard after a year studying maths, is not alone in not finishing. The latest Forbes 400 list of "Richest Americans", just out, finds that the drop-outs are, on average, worth $1.5bn more than the Ivy Leaguers. Bunking off seems to be particularly successful for some in the IT industry. Michael Dell, for example, the 32-year-old founder of the Dell Computer Company, is worth $5.5bn but failed to finish university. Likewise, Larry Ellison, the 53-year-old chief executive of Oracle Systems, is now worth $5.2bn. Ted Waitt, at 34, has no regrets about quitting university in 1985 and founding Gateway 2000, the $4bn computer hardware supplier.
Such success has prompted some to speculate that education is of little help to entrepreneurs and may even be a hindrance, confining their ambitions to the limited horizons of officialdom and the professions. For few people seem to leave college wishing to set up on their own - only 1.6 per cent of British graduates think of self-employment when they leave.
The notion that business acumen and degrees don't go together was popularised by Margaret Thatcher, who, heralding Britain's entrepreneurs, famously pointed out that many don't even have a degree. Clive Sinclair, knighted during her premiership, was her prime example. Sir Clive is best-known for inventing the C5 battery-powered car and the Zike, a battery-assisted bicycle. "I decided against going to university", he recalls, "because they didn't teach what I wanted to learn. I was anxious to make my way in the world, rather than spend more time in an educational establishment."
Sir Clive, however, may be a poor example, since many of his inventions have flopped. So what about Richard Branson, who left school at 16 to start a student magazine? Tim Jackson, author of Virgin King (HarperCollins), Branson's biography, thinks that being less academic helps Britain's most popular businessman, letting him focus on the big picture and leave the detail to others. "It means he doesn't spend his time second-guessing his advisors. So the lawyers are allowed to do their job, while he gets on with running the business."
Alan Sugar, founder of the Amstrad electronics empire, showed formal education a clean set of heels, when, at 18, he started up selling car aerials and plastic record covers. Another success story is Shami Ahmed, who left school in Burnley at 17 and went on to start the Joe Bloggs label, which made him pounds 25m before his 28th birthday. He had been smart enough to pass the exam for the local Barden Grammar School, but spent little time studying there. From the age of 10, he was telling his father, who was already in the rag trade, what would sell and what would not, based on his knowledge of kids in the street.
Even those starting up today, at a time when you might expect schools and universities to be entrepreneur-friendly, often feel that education offers them little.
Ian Finch, 21, is in the middle of a computer studies sandwich course at John Moores University in Liverpool. Earlier this year, he helped set up WebShed which installs modems and develops web sites. He persuaded his tutors to let him drop his placement year at British Steel and spend it instead in the business. "But I've been told", he says, "that if the business fails then I'll fail my degree because we are expected to spend 48 weeks working during our placement year." Tutors, he says, have been of limited help. "They have given opinions but they don't get alongside you and say, `What about this, what about that?' I tend to view education as a way to get letters at the end of your name and prove that you can think rather than as a resource."
Grant Crawley, 27, set up his computer business while studying technical management at John Moores. Five years on, it is worth pounds 250,000. But his success cost him a good degree. "I set up in my final year, after getting first class results for the first two years. I actually filed my first set of accounts in the April before my final exams. But I came out without honours.
"It's a shame", he says, "that even though I didn't have to do all the course work, they didn't mark what I had done in the business and recognise that I had made a profit and learnt a lot."
Crawley is also critical of schools. "I did maths A-level, but a lot of it was useless for someone going into business, unless you want to go into high level engineering using cryptographic algorithms. Accounting skills should have been taught, so at least you can read a profit and loss account. I know bank managers who don't even understand a balance sheet."
A pilot study of 50 students at John Moores (to be expanded to 500) suggests that few students would think of asking their tutor for advice on setting up a business. "They don't seem to see their institutions as an important source of information," says Gayna Perry, who has established a university- based "Students as Entrepreneurs" project aimed at helping graduates set up businesses locally rather than leaving Merseyside.
Yet before students desert their school desks and university libraries for the market stall, some words of caution. The Independent 100 survey, mainly of fast-growing companies, started by individual entrepreneurs, finds the majority are headed by degree-holders.
Sue Birley, professor of entrepreneurship at London's Imperial College Management School, warns that, though the education system may still be poor at supporting the enterprising, it's variety, nonetheless, that gives them many of their product ideas.
"It is time,"she says, "that people stopped saying the best way to start in business is to leave school at 16. We need to understand that people like Branson are absolutely exceptional. It's typical British amateurism to say you don't need to know much about management or accountancy, that instinct is enough. That might have been true 30 years ago. But today's successful young entrepreneurs know that you need technical skills or you could end up in court or go bust."