Forget university if you want to coin it
04 July 2007
Hurrah, hurrah. A new rich list – the millionaire register which now seems to be released with the regularity of pop charts, suggests that Brownite hard work is back in fashion. Communication is for wimps. The media years of Blairism, with its soundbites and charm offensives, have given way to a new, no-nonsense firmness of purpose, a dogged, grinding determination to get on.
Whereas the soft south gave us a world of spin, the Scots and northerners believe in an old-fashioned grafting approach to work, and the Rich List reflects the trend. Of the 25 wealthiest self-made millionaires, almost a quarter were Scottish and 11 were from the north. Southern millionaires tended to have grown rich in the City or through property, but the northerners and Scots mostly came from industrial backgrounds. They had left school early to serve apprenticeships. In fact, only two out of the 25 had started their careers with a university degree.
It is that statistic, during this peculiarly cash-obsessed period in our history, which is most striking: fewer than 10 per cent of our top millionaires attended university. Putting a positive spin on his findings, the compiler of the list,Philip Beresford, has pointed out that apprenticeships, which are apparently still popular in Scotland, account for the Scots’ different approach to work. “They don’t have the Eton and Oxbridge syndrome and they don’t have the Del Boy get-rich-quick mentality. It fits in with the Gordon Brown mould of raising yourself with your boot straps through hard work,” he says.
Here, image seems to have hijacked reality. Brown may appear to be the boot strap-tugging, self-made man of cliché but in fact he not only attended Edinburgh University, graduating with a first, but went on to get a PhD. He is presumably committed to that cornerstone of New Labour education policy, the idea that university is an essential springboard into the world of work.
This list, awkwardly, tells a different story. The majority of those who would go on to become seriously rich did not spend three years attending lectures and writing essays. They were already pursuing their careers. Boot strap-tugging involved making money, not gaining knowledge. So today’s ambitious teenager is faced with conflicting evidence: the statistics suggest that the sooner he or she gets employed, the better the chance of eventual success while the politicians argue that a university degree is the best preparation for a career.
It is not. It is far more important than that. Those three years may provide a useful qualification but, more significantly, a good course at an interesting university offers the chance to think, to challenge, to develop new interests – to grow up, in other words. To present university as a superior form of job-training, as the government has in recent years, is dangerously misleading.
The “get-rich-quick mentality” to which Beresford refers is everywhere and, in every part of public life, money is unquestioningly associated with contentment. But those who make a vast pile of cash tend to be a peculiar breed of person. Their personality is often an unlovely combination of restlessness – there are never quite enough billions in the bank – and dullness.
Even in Brown’s Britain, it is worth reminding ourselves that work is not everything, money not the only reward. Far from being an inspiration, those dead-eyed men in suits on the Rich List should be a warning to the young person who thinks that university is a waste of time.
The ‘Green Olympics’ are a sham
Work on “the greenest Olympics ever” will reach an exciting new phase shortly – a group of 80 allotments in Hackney, where local people have grown their fruit and vegetables for more than a century, will be bulldozed. The little orchards and vegetable patches of Manor Gardens allotments will be demolished to make way for a concrete path. There are two types of environmentalism. That of politicians involves flashy policy initiatives, advertising agencies, slogans, logos. Less easy to promote, and more effective, is the simple tactic of leaving things to grow in peace. The people who garden together in Hackney are celebrants of that genuine organic approach to nature and to life. Their loss reveals the sham of our green Olympics.
* Those who cherish truly naff marketing campaigns should hurry to their computers to view the European Union’s self-promoting clip on YouTube. Entitled, embarrassingly, Film Lovers Will Love This!, it consists of a sequence of sexual orgasms which have been lovingly collected from various films, ending with the predictable affirmation, “Let’s come together!” What an interesting meeting it must have been in Brussels when the EU’s marketing department hit on the simultaneous orgasm as a symbol of European unity. As it has turned out, the soft-porn clip has managed to unify viewers but only in profound irritation. UKIP has said it was “like an elderly relative trying to be cool” (and they should know). The League of Polish Families has complained that a gay orgasm in a lavatory is immoral. When the European Commission, desperately, invoked “freedom of expression and artistic freedom”, it lost my vote. There is clearly a lot of sexual frustration in Brussels. An immediate course of cold showers is what is needed.