For world-renowned yachtswoman Dame Ellen MacArthur, contracting glandular fever just before sitting her A-level exams was “one of the best things that could have happened”, because it made her realise that she did not want to go to university.
Her illness coincided with a round-the-world sailing race, which she followed intently, taping the late-night legs using her grandmother’s video recorder. It was this race that opened her eyes to the possibility of getting paid to sail.
“I was trying to be a vet, actually, and I went through my secondary education studying the relevant subjects through to my mock A-level exam results,” she told Times Higher Education.
“I helped out at a vet’s for three years every Saturday, but when I got one grade short at my mock exam results I was advised not to apply to university because I wasn’t clever enough.”
The advice came as quite a shock to Dame Ellen. “You think your life stops there,” she said. “But I set about trying to get the grades anyway.”
However, it was then that illness set in, and she was forced to spend her days lying on the sofa, watching sailors circumnavigate the globe on the television.
“I’d never come across anybody who’d been sponsored to sail around the world before,” Dame Ellen said in a THE podcast interview.
“I said to myself: ‘That’s how I’m going to do it. I’m going to find a sponsor and I’m going to sail around the world.’ And that’s exactly what I did.”
She ditched her university aspirations, opting instead to attend a sailing school in Hull, camping on the floor and asking “a million questions to as many people as I possibly could”.
Six years later, aged 24, she came second in one of the most difficult races in offshore sailing - the Vendée Globe - in which competitors single-handedly circumnavigate the globe.
In 2004, three years later, she embarked on a journey that would lead to her becoming the fastest person in history to sail around the world singlehandedly - a record she held until 2008.
Dame Ellen has now retired from sailing and runs the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, a registered charity whose activities include work with the University of Bradford to develop a postgraduate course on creating a “circular economy”.
“Our work in higher education spans engineering, business and design, and we look at inspiring university students to [help them] see there is a different way of doing things - to see there is a different way of running the economy, and a different way of designing through material science,” she explained.
The foundation has now teamed up with the US-based Schmidt Family Foundation to give £14,000 scholarships to students at 10 universities, with the aim of developing ways to increase the amount of financial and physical waste that is converted into resources.
Successful applicants will be expected to submit ideas for fostering “creative and innovative thinking around the circular economy”.
All 10, along with their supervisors, will attend a summer school in London in June where they will begin to formulate their ideas.
“Our work with higher education is very much about research and about getting ideas about the circular economy out there…the moment people get that model, they see there is a different way of doing things,” Dame Ellen said.
Although she opted not to pursue the traditional higher education route, university may not be completely off the cards, since degree study later in life runs in the MacArthur family.
“My grandmother, who was a huge inspiration to me, ended up going to university in her late seventies,” Dame Ellen said.
“She completed her degree [in European languages at the University of Derby] when she was in her early eighties.
“She was asked to give a speech on behalf of all the students at the end of the [academic] year. She had the entire room in stitches - because she said, in her eighties, that she went to Germany for six months as an exchange student and ‘scored’.
“You can imagine what all the students and their parents in the room thought. But she paused, and said: ‘Not in the way you think. I scored because, in Germany, old people are respected’. She had an amazing way of communicating. She died three months after making that speech.”