5 December 2011

I was recently asked to be on a panel for a great event organised by the 6th formers at William Hulme School in Manchester. I had not been there since the old days when I used to kick goals through the posts on their front field for Ruthin School. As someone who failed dismally as an academic, it was nice to be asked to contribute so I jumped at the chance.

The line up consisted of 3 politicians, myself and another business person. One of the big topics was university fees and whether or not the £9,000 is fair.

There seems to have been a massive cultural change over the last 10 or 15 years. Blair popularised the idea that everyone should go to University and whilst headline grabbing “right-on,” or “perfect world” scenario sounds great, it actually left the country in a bit of a pickle years later. Suddenly, Great Britain was short of plumbers, electricians and other tradesmen.

No worries though; we had a few million Lawyers coming through the system!

The way Tony Blair portrayed university made it such that if you didn’t go you were seen as a second class citizen. Suddenly, every parent in the country was busy competing with their next door neighbours and their family members to send all of their children to Uni.

Is it any wonder that so many families end up in debt? I was shocked to find out how expensive university is. This, coupled with Student Loans, is, in my opinion, a big enough reason NOT to go on to higher education unless you are learning a specific trade for a particular vocation.

People forget that a university is a business. They generate money, pay salaries and report profits just like other business. But are our universities in danger of focussing too much on their own profits rather than the education they are providing?

There are other ways to learn. A university degree doesn’t give you an iron clad guarantee that you are going to be successful. Sir Gerald Kauffman, the labour politician there, mentioned a story of a girl he’d known who’d gone on an apprentice scheme and ending up “carrying a polythene bag, walking up and down a train and picking up rubbish.” Whether he meant to or not (and I am sure he did not), he spoke as if this person was a second class citizen as a result of her failing the scheme. Every job has merit and you should never underestimate a person by the clothes they wear or their vocation.

It’s interesting that when asked for a show of hands over how many people wanted to go to university, everyone stretched for the ceiling but there was silence. I asked the question, what is it about University that you are looking forward to? Is it the freedom? Is it the fact that you get away from your parents and you can have an abundance of parties?

Now I got a reaction. I got a unanimous, resounding response.

Once I’d explained that you don’t have to go to University to have a blast, I had their attention. They had not considered this option.

I never went to university. I not only had my first 4 bedroom house at 19 years old, I also had an income greater than my mother who had been teaching for 20 years.

And all from just playing the piano and being resourceful.

I must have touched a nerve or said something that the kids related to because as soon as we’d finished the 30 or so students all gathered round me to shake my hand. It was an overwhelming moment as I realised that in amongst all the adversity and uncertainty, I somehow represented some sort of beacon of hope. I must have been the first bit of positivity they had seen in some time.

Talking with the kids, I could see passion tempered with an air of desperation over which way they should turn.

What sort of world are we creating for the next generation? We are so busy worrying about the now that the future is being overlooked.

John Moulton is the only one who put it in a simple enough way for me to understand. “For every £3 the government earns, it spends £4.”

It doesn’t matter if you hate the conservatives; the labour government set that ball rolling. And if you hate labour, there are a plethora of indiscretions the conservatives have made. Both parties are equal in their indifference and their desire to share the blame. The world is changing quicker than our political system can deal with.

Can you imagine a simple questionnaire going out, “Do we invade Iraq?” and “Do we invade Syria?”

The people of Britain could answer that question very simply via the internet and there would be no need for the lies and time-wasting debates that precede and follow.

This would have been an administrative impossibility a decade ago. Now, it would be simple and you could have an answer back on any question in hours.

Anyway, it’s not going to happen. I can’t see politicians voting themselves out of the control they currently have. Something has to change though. The quality of the decisions being made and the management of the diminishing funds isn’t at a high enough level to propel us forward.

So, it’s no wonder that the 6th formers are looking anxious.

What are the options?

Well, whatever the economy, if you are wanting to set up a business, there is no right or wrong time. There were 2 of the 17 or 18 year olds who told me they were already making money running their own little businesses; one a cake / confectioners, the other buying shrimp (a bit random for Manchester – mind you, if you can make money trading shrimp in Manchester, my money is on this kid being an entrepreneurial superstar). Ironically, both of these 2 young people told me that they were being forced to go to university by parents who already ran small businesses but felt that their kids needed qualifications to fall back on.

Crazy really. We don’t look at qualifications when assessing candidates at UKFast. We look for great people and we don’t prejudice a person based on their ability to do well in an exam environment.

As my A level Music examiner said to me after I crucified Sonata in A, “If Mozart could have heard that, he’d have turned in his grave.”

Lawrence jones UKFast and eldest daughter Tegan at  the piano

“If Mozart could have heard that, he’d have turned in his grave!”

I failed my A level, and that same examiner ended up working for me a few years later. He often said that if he’d known what I was capable of on the piano, he’d have marked me very differently. But the system wasn’t and still isn’t built for the odd ones out.

It’s a good job I failed really. I think University would have been the death of me. It would have given me the confidence to write a CV and go for interviews. It was this lack of confidence in my ability to get a job that forced me to set up my own business. Ironic really, especially as you can set up a business without a single qualification. You just need the passion and the determination and a bit of belief. The rest will come, as I am finding out.

I got the impression that these kids just wanted to be told that they could succeed, but no one tells them that. No one wants to build up their hopes for fear that they might get knocked down. The economy doesn’t help. It discourages entrepreneurialism and whilst I don’t think this is a deliberate act, I do think it’s an inevitability from the constant doom and gloom that surrounds modern politics today.

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