A reject reports: 'I'm glad I didn't go to university'

For students disappointed by their A-level results, it's not all bad news. Forgoing a degree was the making of Lisa Markwell. Here she explains why entering the world of work as a teenager was exhilarating and rewarding

Lisa Markwell@lisamarkwell
Tuesday 08 November 2011 18:17

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 students opening their results wreathed in smiles, 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 from 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 great deal 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 a place on a course that probably wouldn't have been his first (or even second, or third) choice and then saddle himself with debt for at least the following decade.

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 the 12-hour,no lunchbreak, always-on-call year I spent thinking I might like to concentrate on fashion (I never ventured back into that category).

I shouldn't let my experience colour his – the job market is very, 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. He's already completed two weeks (at the same age I did my swanning about on a glossy mag) with a master furniture-maker and expressed an interest in carpentry. If the "does anyone know a good decorator/parquet-floor layer/cabinet-maker?" Facebook and Twitter messages around north-west London are anything to go by, he'll be more than fine. He'll make a bloody fortune, and he won't be part of the much talked-of "lost generation".

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. But he will not go short-changed on financial support for learning.

I get asked time and again for career advice by schoolchildren, media students and interns – should they do a degree/post-grad/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.

And if he learns to earn using tools, rather than software, will my son have an advantage, or disadvantage, when it comes to that other great British benchmark of "growing up", a mortgage? In the next few years the housing market may have shifted to such an extent that nobody will expect to own their own property.

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 of The Independent

Never made the grade, either

By Alice-Azania Jarvis

John Major

The former Prime Minister left school with three O-levels. Four years later, he began a correspondence course in banking, joining Standard Chartered bank in 1965. In 1979, he was elected to Parliament for Huntingdonshire.

See also: Alan Johnson, John Prescott

Richard Branson

Possibly the most famous non-university success story, Branson left the private Stowe school at 16, having struggled with dyslexia. He founded the Virgin brandin 1970, when he set up a record mail-order business.

See also: Alan Sugar

Mary Portas

Portas was offered a place at Rada but couldn't take it up and went for a careerin fashion. After stints at John Lewis, Harrods and Topshop, she joined Harvey Nichols, which she is credited with turning into a cutting-edge brand, then went on to TV fame.

See also: Harold Tilman

Caitlin Moran

Moran began her career at Melody Maker when she was 16. In the early 1990s, she presented the Channel 4 music show Naked City. She now writes regular columns for The Times and recently published her second book, How To Be a Woman.

See also: Julie Burchill

Stuart Rose

Aged 23, Rose joined Marks and Spenceras a trainee, remaining there for the next17 years, before becoming chief executiveof the Burton Group. In 2004, he returned to M&S as chief executive and was chairman until earlier this year.

See also: Philip Green

Lauren Laverne

Radio DJ, TV presenter, singer, and author: Laverne has many strings to her bow, but a degree isn't one of them. She was offered a place at Durham University, but the success of her band Kenickie meant she never took it up.

See also: Davina McCall, Chris Evans

Jamie Oliver

Oliver left school at 16 without any qualifications. He enrolled at Westminster Kingsway Further Education College before getting his first job as a pastry chef at Antonio Carluccio's Neal's Yard.

See also: Gordon Ramsay, Marco Pierre White, Stevie Parle

Elton John

The then Reginald Dwight was just about to take his A-levels but decided to pack it in and pursue music with Bluesology, a band that he formed with friends. In 1969, aged 22, he released his debut album, Empty Sky.

See also: Morrissey, Mick Jagger, Paul McCartney

Piers Morgan

Morgan studied journalism at Harlow College. His first newspaper job was at the South London News. He became the youngest editor of a national newspaper for more than 50 years when he took over The News of The World, aged 28.

See also: Kelvin MacKenzie

Richard Caring

Despite showing promise as a golfer, Caring became an office boy at 16. When his family's fashion business was in trouble, he rescued it by getting his girlfriend to create a range of cheap miniskirts. He went on to make a fortune in fashion, property and restaurants.

Join our new commenting forum

Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies

View comments