If you don't fancy it, not going to University need not be fatal...

23/09/2021

During September, lots of University students are filling backpacks and charging up laptops for their return to, hopefully for a lot of them, in-person tuition once again. Many parents are also checking Google Maps and tyre pressures for potentially long journeys off to towns they're not that well-acquainted with to drop off precious cargo for their first days in Higher Education - a record 395,770 of them, in fact, according to UCAS, the body that oversees British universities' application process.

Though I was once one of the latter group, in the end I never did make that journey to a campus, near or far, in fact. And though I do wish the best to every person going to college this week, I also do want to say - and hopefully, not in an annoying Jeremy Clarkson way - that it's not too late to change your mind!

Why? Because I believe everyone must find their own path in life, and if this doesn't feel like the right path for you, don't do it. I can't say what would have happened if I had gone in the end, but I can say that there is a perfectly fine career and life pathway out there for you. And I believe that I'm proof of that!

I'm not showing off here, but I did have the Uni option (Imperial, then later Oxford) yet said no, twice. And if it helps anyone shape their thinking at this crucial time, I want to say why.

My Dad was a pilot for the rich and the famous, and for a long time worked in the, to me, totally glamorous world of F1: he would take team managers to races around exotic parts of the world. As a result, I got very into cool cars and airplanes and from an early age was keen to become a racing car designer. I had also figured out that with cars becoming increasingly quick and aerodynamics being so important in doing that, it would be best to do an aeronautical engineering degree, which would combine my interest in aeroplanes with cars - and then I'd go off to design racing cars, or whatever.

I learnt that Imperial College's aeronautics course was the ideal way to do that. So, I worked hard, got the grades and was got a place on this dream course of mine, and was about a month away from starting when I got invited to a test day at Silverstone to help.

At the test day, and of significance for my future, I got a chance to talk to the actual chap that designed the car - a lovely man called Ross Brawn, who is very big in the legendary heritage of Formula One.

We had a great chat that totally changed my course. 'If you want to design racing cars, that's not the course to do it,' he told me. 'If you just want to be an engineer, well, just be an engineer: just go and find out how to turn a spanner and how things work.'

A year off that turned into a life

Mr Brawn may not have intended to turn me off, but the way my teenage brain interpreted this advice was that I should go and do a different course, but of course right then I didn't know where to start. So I decided to take a year off, to find the right course and to really think hard about what to do.

My parents weren't totally happy about this, but supported my decision as long as I got a job during this year off. So, I knocked off a CV (which was pretty empty), and stuck it through the letterbox of all the local companies that had big offices, not really knowing who they were or what they did.

And as luck would have it my parents lived in Maidenhead, and one of the doors belonged to ICL, International Computers Limited, the UK's national computer company that provided all of the computer equipment to local government and to BT, you name it. And the retail part of ICL, which provided all the tills and back-office equipment for all the big supermarkets like Sainsburys, Waitrose, M&S rang me up and said, we're always looking for people that want to get in who show a bit of promise. Long story short, I had an interview, they liked me, I started on about £2 a day, and 20 years later, that's still kind of what I do every day - work with computers to solve customer problems.

ICL was, for me, and I recall many others, an incredible place to work. I was lucky to get a job there, and have always been grateful for the chance it gave me. IT felt to me like another sort of engineering, which was what I wanted to do anyway, so while it was a long way from racing cars it quickly became apparent that I was already doing the kind of job that I could have gone to University for three years and ended up doing anyway. So I felt like I'd saved three years, in as much as I was working and doing the same role as other people that had finished college and come back/come to there.

Plus, because of the nature of the company, we were working on things that were much more advanced than people at Uni did - and because everything moves on so quickly in IT, we had the latest equipment, the latest software, and the latest training.

Take advice from people you trust who know the field of endeavour or business you're looking at

To be fair, I didn't escape further education all together: my managers made me do an HND on day release, which was good, but what we were doing in day release was still 15 years behind technology-wise than what I was doing day-to-day to the point where towards the end I was doing some of the teaching, because I was doing some of these things as a day job. I felt I saved a huge amount of time, was doing what I wanted to do, and getting paid for it. And I still had friends at university, so I didn't totally miss out on the university lifestyle.

Not going to Uni, then, worked out fine for me. I have no problem at all with anyone that goes, and I've hired loads of people who did (though I always do worry a bit that they teach very abstract things at college, perhaps not enough that's hands-on practical). I short-circuited the process and got to where I wanted to be a lot sooner than I would otherwise. So, my advice to any young person reading this, or maybe even to parents not sure themselves if their youngster's taking the right step this week, is this:

  • there is an alternative
  • pursue your passion, if you have one
  • take advice from people you trust who know the field of endeavour or business you're looking at...
  • and at the end of the day, if you feel like it - jump in! The water's lovely out here ☺

(And GOOD LUCK, whatever you decide: you'll be FINE.)

By James Percy, Managing Director, Verasseti