Why students are better-off pursuing university or college than going straight into work with school-leaver schemes

'Going straight into work from school will limit your exposure to different types of people'

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The Independent Online

School-leaver schemes have been a hot-topic of discussion since the rise of tuition fees. The Big Four accounting firms – along with investment banks and law firms – have offered bright students a way of skipping higher education by hiring them straight after their A-levels.

I was on such a scheme at one of the Big Four firms for almost a year before deciding to resign and go to university. The decision for me wasn’t particularly difficult because there are fundamental issues with these programmes.

First of all, there is a huge stigma attached to joining a school-leaver scheme. I found that, far too often, people would question why I wasn’t attending university (with the assumption, in most cases, being that I wasn’t capable) and if I had thoroughly thought my decision through.

The rhetoric of ‘I didn’t like the idea of being in debt’, and ‘I would have worked at a firm like this after university anyway’ began to run dry – especially against the most common responses of ‘What about job security?’, and ‘What about life experience?’

The job security question is an interesting one. Don’t be fooled by the so-called ‘five year programme’ – these firms will be happy to let you go if they think you’re under-performing or the business can’t afford to keep you.

In fact, while I was there, two school-leavers were asked to leave due to poor performance. With no degree, and presumably not much experience either, this can be an extremely difficult position to find yourself in and getting another job isn’t easy. 

You also have to ask yourself: ‘Is this what I what to do for the rest of my life?’ Once you’re in and doing well, you don’t tend to move and, in my opinion, there are two big reasons for that: there isn’t much flexibility on your CV, and you also don’t know much different. You’ve worked for the same firm since the day you left college and your skill set, relatively speaking, is very small.

So why did I join? Clever marketing sold me the idea of being on an accelerated scheme where I would progress through the company very quickly and have huge amounts of responsibility very young. This was, unfortunately, completely incorrect.

At the firm where I worked, it would take me five years to finish the necessary qualifications to become an ‘executive’, making me 23, whereas it would take a typical graduate three years to achieve the same, making them 24. That’s not exactly acceleration.

In terms of actual learning and development, I only had 14 days of planned and time-tabled training in total. The rest of the time was taken-up with needless hours of filing, photocopying, and printing documents.

I was told I wouldn’t be making cups of tea which, to be fair, was true, but the work was incredibly mundane and was very rarely anything to do with finance. It was predominantly just admin. 

Contrast this with university and the learning curve, in terms of both education and life experience, has been endless. The freedom to do what you want, when you want and how you want is not something you’ll experience anywhere else – and it does help define who you are.

The couple of years I’ve had at university, so far, have been great and have played-up the cliché of being ‘the best years of my life’ – and I’m glad I didn’t miss out.

The three years at university also go a long way in terms of career development too. You make a lot of friends who end up being future colleagues or potential clients, so don’t underestimate the importance of this.

Going straight into work from school will limit your exposure to different types of people and you are likely to be at a disadvantage as you progress up these firms and it becomes more about who you know and what business you can bring in.

Schemes such as the one I was on are fantastic in many respects and do offer an alternative, but to any student who is considering joining one, I would have some advice: think carefully before you commit, be aware of what you’re missing out on, and prepare yourself for a long slog.

Twitter: @ShehabKhan