Opinion: 'Why the workplace could be better for learning than university'

Hugo Eales, chief financial officer at Colt Technology Services, argues for greater access to learning in the workplace instead of the classroom

Hugo Eales

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The number of young people in higher education has increased significantly in the last few decades, but in my opinion the business case for university remains unclear. Over three-quarters of graduate schemes demand a 2:1 as a minimum entry requirement from a top UK university. Unless you can expect to achieve very high grades, or you have your heart set on a profession that requires an academic path, university, simply put, might not be your best option.

During my career, I have worked with people who have no qualifications but are brilliant at their jobs. Having left school at 16 with none myself, I was lucky enough to be given a chance via the government-funded Youth Training Scheme (YTS). I began by working for a very small IT supplier at a time when over 10 per cent of the population was unemployed. It paid £26 per week, and even back in 1986 that was not a great amount.  But it gave me something invaluable that school had failed to teach me: self-belief. Six months later, I had enough experience and confidence to land a position as an admin clerk in an insurance company. By the time I was 22, I was working for the Salomon Brothers inestment bank in New York.

Accountancy is still perhaps a bit of an exception because it is possible to qualify without first having A-levels or a university degree. But I was motivated by mentors in my early years to gain work-related qualifications: first a BTEC in business and finance and secondly my CIMA certificate, which I completed by attending weekend school. This did take a lot of hard work and the sacrifice of lots of weekends and evenings, but it paid off.

In a world where most professions select exclusively from a prestigious and elite group of graduates, I feel we are closing the doors to a significant talent pool and potentially failing to identify leaders that could help us transform the way we do business. Not everyone is cut out for formal education. Many key competences, such as leadership and humbleness, are not learned in the classroom. In my eyes, one of the most important skills in life is humility – and it is often a key ingredient in the making of a great leader.

My team across Colt includes examples of very valuable people, some of whom, like me, did not go to university. I realise that opportunities today for young people in the UK to learn by being on the job are limited. But school leavers shouldn’t feel that university is always the correct path for them. It certainly wasn’t for me.

I believe we need to find a better balance, by nurturing people with different skills and understanding that it can’t all be taught in the classroom. That is why I am committed to creating more opportunities for young people in the workplace. After all, they made me into who I am today.

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