Interview - ‘Anti-university crusade’: not as crazy as it sounds

David Matthews meets Simon Dolan, self-made multimillionaire and ‘anti-university crusader’

July 4, 2013

University is not for everyone: not even the most fanatical outreach officer would deny that. But one man has gone further, embarking on an “anti-university crusade”, as his publicity material puts it, because he believes that for the vast majority of people, it is a huge waste of money.

Simon Dolan, who was thrown out of school at the age of 16 but now has a net worth estimated at £100 million, might not be your typical Times Higher Education interviewee. But his views on higher education are certainly not unusual, particularly among the UK’s current crop of celebrity entrepreneurs and businesspeople. Lord Sugar, host of BBC One’s The Apprentice, said in 2011 that universities were producing graduates who “know nothing” and that the “university of life” was better preparation for work.

Dolan’s publicity material doesn’t exactly underplay his life story. Booted out of education with “virtually” no qualifications, it recounts, he started off “selling cheese and eggs on a market stool” – presumably because he could not afford an actual stall.

But after growing his accountancy business, Dolan, 44, now owns “a number of properties and a fleet of cars and planes”. In 2010 he set down his arguments on university in his autobiography, How To Make Millions Without A Degree: And How To Get By Even If You Have One.

His agent does little to downplay that flashy image when THE makes contact to arrange an interview – Dolan, he explains, might be rather busy, as he enjoys racing cars in his spare time and Le Mans – the annual endurance racing event in France – is coming up, and Dolan is competing.

On entering the Hemel Hempstead office of his company SJD Accountancy, the eye is drawn to a poster of the front cover of Atlas Shrugged (1957), the magnum opus of Ayn Rand, the Russian-American writer beloved of US libertarians who advocated extreme self-interest and minimal government.

All right for some, many in higher education might sneer, to make piles of money and then sit back and tell youngsters how easy it is to do the same – particularly if you would rather race cars than expand your mind.

But after speaking to Dolan it becomes apparent that in a world of high fees and tough graduate job prospects, dismissing him is not enough: the academy will have to come up with some compelling ripostes to his arguments, which are about more than money.

‘A real con’

Dolan explains that he has long been dissatisfied with the “incessant” way that young people are pushed towards university as the only way to get good jobs. But the straw that broke the camel’s back and prompted him to write his book was the decision to raise tuition fees from £3,000-odd a year to a maximum of £9,000.

“The student is going to come out with £50,000 of debt. That’s a real con,” he says.

But graduates are more likely to be employed and earn higher salaries, are they not?

Dolan, who has debated against university advocates on a number of occasions, is not so sure.

“The best [argument] that the pro-uni lobby could come up with…is that over the lifetime of the individual, their earnings would be £100,000 more on average than someone who didn’t go to university,” he says.

“Now, that’s the best you can come up with – it has cost you £50,000 to earn £100,000 extra over the course of 45 years (not including the interest that you’ll need to pay back)?”

He also points out that this assumes the value of degrees will remain the same over the next 45 years, whereas, he argues, they are likely to become worth less and less as more people hold them.

Indeed, the £100,000 figure, regularly quoted by politicians and universities during debates on the academy in recent years, is actually based on research from 2002 conducted by the Department of Education, carried out before most of the long boom in student numbers under New Labour (although graduates are still much less likely to be unemployed).

The graduate premium is “marginal” because university does not teach you skills that are particularly useful in work, Dolan argues.

“I think you gain a lot more insight into critical thinking when you have a real-life problem, such as whether to put fees up for clients,” he adds.

On this point, too, the academy has no particularly rigorous evidence to parry Dolan’s thrust. In the UK, there have been no attempts to systematically test students’ skills at the beginning and end of their courses across different institutions.

When this was tried in the US using data from the Collegiate Learning Assessment tests, which measure students’ ability to “think critically, reason analytically, solve problems and communicate clearly and cogently”, it was found that 36 per cent of those measured showed no improvement in these skills over four years of higher education.

Different strokes

So university might not necessarily be a sound financial bet. It may not even sharpen your mind. But what about the sheer joy of learning?

The entrepreneur is keen to stress that he really enjoys “learning lots of different things. I’m not against learning and I’m not against education. What I am saying is maybe there’s a better way of doing it.”

Dolan adds: “You know, you have 72 hours a week when you’re not working or sleeping. What’s your average university week – 20 hours? If you are sufficiently interested in a subject, then there is more than enough time…to go and research that subject.”

He emphasises that he has no “axe to grind” against universities and “no kind of antipathy” towards an academic route through life: he simply doesn’t want everybody pushed down that path.

University is a perfectly acceptable route for young people to take, he adds, but only if they have truly considered all the options, including apprenticeships, starting their own businesses or entering the workplace aged 18.

However, society fails to present the options clearly and fairly, and instead “brainwashes” children from an early age into thinking that university is the only way to go, he argues.

“I would really like it if I could just get into one person’s head and make them think, for 10 minutes, whether there was a better way of achieving what they want to achieve,” Dolan says.

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