Nice little learners

May 15, 1998

Most students are seriously poor. One or two, however, are very, very rich. So why are they bothering with a degree? Harriet Swain reports.

John Bennett is juggling journalists - or rather, his PR executive is juggling them on his behalf. He wants to time his interviews to get maximum publicity for his company, Software Warehouse, "the fifth fastest-growing company in the UK". But a meeting at the weekend is out because he will be sailing. Bennett, company director and millionaire, even if "only on paper", is 23. He has been in a senior position at the company for the past seven years.

He does not plan to be there much longer. In a few months' time, he will give it all up - the PR executive, the Pounds 30,000-or-so a year salary, the sailing - to become a student at King's College, London. He will rent out his four-bedroom detached country house and has sold his TVR Chimera sports car to prepare for the change. The proceeds of the car will, he hopes, pay his fees for a five-year law course and leave him some Pounds 500 a term spending money on top. It was a nice car.

Planning to a degree that is beyond most students, he has worked out a budget for the next few years. "I know I will have enough to pay my rent, get food and have a bit of spending money," he says. "Obviously it won't be nearly the amount I was living on before. But I'm not really into this whole money thing." He says he has no illusions that times will be a bit harder, but "it's the price of going after a long-term goal - the goal of achieving a degree".

If the government's favoured lifelong learning programme takes off, there will be more and more people like Bennett, who decide to go to university after succeeding in other walks of life. Like him, they will give up material comforts to do so. The difference is that most will decide to study as a way of boosting their earning potential, achieving a qualification that could land them at the top of their career ladder rather than stuck in the middle. So what is it that makes people choose to study when they are already at the top?

Proving something to myself, says Bennett, who was just 16 when he started helping out in his older brother's fledgling software company. "I need to know I have achieved things on my own. There is always leeway to say I am only there because it is a family company."

A sense of personal achievement, says Louise Hall, who won Pounds 1 million in the lottery in her final year at Bradford University but continued with her course.

Sheer joy of studying, says Mandy Wainwright, a former professional tennis player now studying archaeology and anthropology at Emmanuel College, Cambridge. Still only 22, she says all she wanted to do when studying for her A levels was play tennis. "But after about 18 months, I got bored. Tennis wasn't enough to keep me mentally stimulated." Although she sailed through her A levels in a week when she was also competing at Wimbledon, she was not convinced university was for her. "I thought I could always stop if I didn't like it," she says. "I have ended up absolutely loving it." She now lives off a grant and loan and is relishing staying in one place after the travelling of the tennis circuit.

"I suppose at the beginning you are used to a certain lifestyle of eating out all the time, staying in hotels," she says. "When I first came to university, I kept suggesting getting a takeaway and people looked at me as if I was mad. Eventually I thought I couldn't keep doing it." While she never made enormous amounts of money, she was ranked 212 in the world at one stage and enjoyed the prestige that went with that. Now what she likes best is going out for coffee with friends, most of whom are older than her fellow students.

Fitting into university social life can be a problem for young high-fliers. Experience of running a company, competing professionally, working 12-hour days and handling lots of money is far removed from the lives of most of their peers. Michael Argyle, emeritus reader in social psychology at Wolfson College, Oxford, says it can create something of a social gap if immature people with little knowledge of the world are thrown together with people much more experienced. For that reason Oxford, like many other universities, prefers people to take a year off before beginning their degree.

Traditionally, some universities have always had a proportion of wealthy students who socialise together in their own societies, where they do not need to feel self-conscious about their wealth. But Simon Defty, president of the Mature Students Union, says he is often surprised at how readily mature students join in with normal student social activities, however silly. Older students who come to university with a substantial nest-egg and no family to spend it on do their best to fit in. "Students with a bit more money by and large are sympathetic to the plight of other students and tend not to throw their money around or turn up in Armani suits," he says. "They buy rounds like anybody else." One reason Bennett gave up the house and the car was to become as far as possible "just another student". He chose King's not only because of its reputation for law but because he admired its attitude, "It seemed one of the 'cooler' universities," he says.

According to Defty, mature students stick out most in terms of studying rather than of socialising. "Traditional students have a view of mature students as swots who take all the books out of the library first," he says. "Most lecturers like them because many of the younger ones don't have anything to fall back on in seminars and can clam up. But this favouritism can cause resentment among younger students." Wainwright admits to being a perfectionist and of thriving on the pressure of exams. But she says her experience before university gave her perspective. "When you are playing tennis you think it is the be-all and end-all," she says. "Then you realise there is much more out there. It is the same with studying. It is not going to change the world if you mess up an exam. You just have to enjoy it at the time."

This can be an advantage but may also prove a distraction. Bennett is studying part-time for an A level in economics to try to warm up his brain. But he is finding it hard to balance study and work. He is still going into the office every afternoon before pulling out of the business altogether in the summer. Keeping concentration has been hardest of all for Hall, who, aged 20, became a lottery millionaire. A final-year radiography student at Bradford University, she has been battling with her dissertation ever since. "I found it a struggle to carry on my motivation. But I had the personal satisfaction of doing it and now I'm so close I wouldn't dream of giving up," she says.

Many have asked her why she is still at university, and she has already had two marriage proposals. "Patients come into the X-ray department asking for me and if I'm not there say they'll marry me anyway," she says. She is considering taking a part-time rather than full-time job now but is determined to find work. Other than the initial distraction, the money has made little difference to her life. She has always lived at home and relied on her father, a partner in an accountancy firm, for her living expenses. While she now pays these herself and has splashed out on cars for most of the family and a holiday in Tenerife, she has invested most of the money. "I'm just treated the same really," she says. "I still want to be a radiographer but the money just means I will be able to work less."

Such a relaxed attitude towards wealth may be hard to take for the average student, who expects to graduate owing about Pounds 2,500 and will need to get by next year on grants and loans of Pounds 3,545. The subject of student hardship has barely been out of the news since the government decided to introduce fee charges of up to Pounds 1,000 for all but the poorest third of students from next year. But there is evidence that students are becoming more resigned to debt, with just 21 per cent of those questioned in last year's Barclays Bank survey of student finances saying they were "worried, angry or concerned" by the amount they owed. Early success seems to make young people even more laid back, teaching them the true value of study on the one hand and, on the other, that money has its limits.

John Bennett already had some interest in law while he was at school but could not wait to start helping out in the family business. Now he has had direct experience of looking at contracts and longs to look into the legal process academically. What work has taught him is that his talents lie in garnering facts and knowledge rather than in the sort of natural flair that inspired his brother, Steve, to start up the company. He has never taken university education into account when hiring and firing staff but sees the value of it for his own development. "People cannot understand why I don't miss the house or car," he says. "They were both lovely. But material possessions are not that important in the great scheme of things, are they?"

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