Why I (Probably) Won’t Send My Kids To University

University exemption.

Two words that caused much consternation in my home and among my peers leading up to matric prelims and finals.

When we chose subjects in Grade 10, the focus was almost exclusively on picking a combination (MATHS! SCIENCE! BIOLOGY! ACCOUNTING!) that significantly improved one’s chances of being accepted into a good university, in a good course. “If you don’t have a degree, you’re screwed” was the prevailing wisdom.

Well, I still haven’t gotten that degree. That is after two attempts. I did ok though, and while I am certainly not knocking the value of a good tertiary education at a good tertiary institution, with all the added life experience that it brings, I think the burden on ensuring my kids have a degree is far less important to me than it may have been to my parents.

The problem with university is two-fold. Firstly, the world around us is changing at such an exponential rate – technologically, sociopolitically and environmentally – ushering in a generation far less interested in collecting degrees, title, big houses and expensive cars, and far more interested in collecting ideas, perspectives and experiences. The time it takes for knowledge to be inculcated into the tertiary syllabus is dramatically exceeded by the rate of change outside of those institutions.

Secondly, school teaches us squat about the real world. Most kids leave school with absolutely zero idea of what they actually want to do. In Grade 11, after we’d chosen our subjects, at least 72% of our class wanted to be marine biologists. Goodness knows why – I blame Free Willy. Unless your child wants to be a lawyer, accountant, doctor, veterinarian, etc., chances are school has taught them nothing about what the world of work is actually like. Their degree of insight will be dependent almost entirely on your input, and if you’re not particularly good at exposing them to options and alternatives, there’s a great danger they’ll be shoehorned into a degree they hate in a university they hate with people they hate for the best flipping years of their life. That’s a bit kak.

If either of my kids are bent on the professional route I will do my utmost to enable their journey to and through a university that gives them the best chance at being the best version of that. But to be honest – and this has become the advice I’m giving everyone of that age or ilk that I speak to – taking a gap year could be the best thing you could do for yourself, or do for your child.


Even before you do the rad travel thing, spend at least 6 months or ideally a year, straight out of school, working odd jobs in as many different sizes and types of company that you possibly get can. Capture data. Pack parts. Ship product. Sit in meetings. Watch presentations. Have a good boss. Have a shit boss. Understand the energy and risk of a small business, and the power and politics of a big one. Learn stuff. Break stuff. Ask questions.

I can’t think of a single degree that can offer more insight into business than a year of that. You don’t even need to get paid. Money would be a bonus but experience and perspective is the real reward.

We set up our Talent Fast Track (Fastie) program at Cerebra to meet exactly this need; To give graduates or fresh-out-of-school youngsters an accelerated experience of what it’s like to work in our business and with our clients. Those that make it through the initial bootcamp are offered a contract to ‘specialise’ in a particular avenue of focus. I guess it’s a sexy name for a graduate program.

And yes, the whole point of this provocative little post was to promote that program. Ha!

Please, if you know anyone with a passion for social media or branding or advertising that would like to go through our Fastie program, get them to send their information and a CV to careers@cerebra.co.za. It is a fantastic opportunity and makes a hell of a difference to Cerebra!

Out of interest, are you going to prescribe that your kids (or future kids) go to university? And if so, why?

  • Samantha Muller

    I think I would leave it up to my kids and what suits them but wouldn’t fuss if they chose not to go (I am not entrepreneurial and presumably this means my kids won’t be either?). I do think university (at least for me) taught me a lot about myself and people from all walks of life and different countries as well as a different way of learning. I think a university education does prove that somebody can see something through. I took a gap year working before university which meant I was a bit more focused on what it is I wanted in life (and what I didn’t – which was answering phones!) I think I would encourage my kids to do that – take some time out to work and figure out what it is they wanted to do. But if they wanted to go to university I wouldn’t say no. Again though, higher education doesn’t get cut off 3 years post-school – you can always go back to study further. I also think not everyone is confident enough to work straight after school so university is a good way to mature a bit more (and have loads of fun) and ultimately make connections that stay with you and through your career for a lifetime.

    • Thanks for the comment Samantha. I’m certainly not implying that parents being entrepreneurial guarantees or predetermines a similar path for their kids. I think it can increase the chances thereof, but then again business ownership is not for everyone and certainly not better or worse than employment.

      I agree on all your points but I don’t think any of them are limited to university. You can mature in the workplace, meet people, grow networks, and learn perseverance and commitment there, too.

  • cathjenkin

    I agree with you in some respects here. Particularly, this line: “Capture data. Pack parts. Ship product. Sit in meetings. Watch presentations. Have a good boss. Have a shit boss. Understand the energy and risk of a small business, and the power and politics of a big one. Learn stuff. Break stuff. Ask questions.”

    This is exactly WHY I involve my kid in my work. I take her with me to (appropriate) meetings, show her how I work business expenses, often stick her next to me when I’m involved in a project and try to teach her things she probably will never learn in school. What she’s learnt so far is probably never something that’ll be taught in a syllabus.

    As for university, I waver on this one. I know my degree got me my first job, but that was working in a bicycle shop. I have a degree in journalism. Let’s think about that for a second.

    • cathjenkin

      Oh, and when I did work in an office, for a boss and the like, she was a regular feature in my work day (because, hey, school holidays happen).

  • Philip Marais

    I agree that one’s career is shaped in large by your perspective and also by dedication and some real hard work.

    I don’t think that a University degree, or completion thereof, especially during the shittiest of times, is a perspective that should be discounted.

    I think back to my experiences, I have had both. Study successes. Study failures, which outnumber the successes. I have worked shit part time jobs, even shittier part-time jobs, part time jobs that ended up having me pay in at the end of the night and I ended up with a great full time job (and an unrelenting obsession to chase bigger things).

    My philosophy in that regard is perhaps less “operations” and more “strategy”. I believe that whatever you do to generate the perspective (work/study), that will guide your next big career decision, should at least aim to leave you with more options rather than fewer, come decision time.

    My analogy is this personal anecdote.

    I was training for the Comrades marathon two years ago. About 4 months into training, I realised that I wasn’t going to make it to Comrades, as I failed to qualify in 4 marathon attempts. I would only allow myself peace, if I knew that I qualified, but decided not to go to the race and that, that decision, was based on merit and not the due course of failure. The separation between failure and a decision not to compete, is a fine one, but an important one. I qualified for the Comrades during the very last possible opportunity. I decided not to go, as I did not think that I had a realistic chance of finishing within 12-hours.

    The point is, my hypothetical advice would be, that you can only make a choice from any of the available options you have. By virtue of the fact that you will only have confidence in your choice with a bit of perspective, it is imperative that you put in the effort to increase your options, rather than restricting them. Learning to put in the effort to get the perspective you need, is what is important, not where you get it, i.e. studying, working etc.

    Would I prescribe University? I’d like to think that I would not. What I do think I will prescribe, is that my children will have the option to go. But I get your sentiment about University not being the final destination, but that kids should be given the opportunity to look beyond, to the real world, before they make a decision on how to get there.

  • Amanda

    In the UK, sadly, a degree is a ‘licence’ to apply for jobs. With the huge competition for work, it’s a an ‘easy way out’ for employers to filter kids who can write more than text-speak and who have the ability to sit at a desk for several hours at a time. i.e. to fit into the dull, limiting work world of the average person (and indeed the world some very talented people are shaped into fitting).

    My son kicked the traces and refused to finish his A-levels which he was finding pointless, in order to do some degree he didn’t feel any passion for. After grape picking, pizza making, picking stock in warehouses, packing vans, unpacking vans… and discovering that he isn’t an entrepreneur… he has done further education and is now at university.

    BUT he’s doing a degree he wouldn’t have chosen straight out of school. His view is that he can’t drive a car without a licence and he can’t apply for jobs in Europe or the US where he wants to live, without a licence. Although I was in agonies over what would happen to him, in hind sight I’m proud that he didn’t roll-over and unconsciously do what society demanded in the first instance.

    He worked out for himself what he needs to do to earn a living given his personality and aptitude and is now going for it (perhaps he will still find some entrepreneur in himself and start his own enterprise one day!).

    Were I to have another child, I’d help them to explore all the possible options for a fulfilling life, give them advice based on my own life experience and observations of their personality, pointing out the pros and cons as I see them, but not force them to follow society’s prescribed route of Matric/A-levels and University. On one level we are a society of control freaks with our children’s achievements and choices. Let them enjoy their youth!

  • Brian C

    I also believe the climate is changing (and at a fast pace as you mentioned). Its no longer a world where one gets a degree, finds a decent job and then works there until retirement – this is the world my parents generation grew up in and and pass on to my generation – there is nothing wrong with that. But times have changed. Its become so competitive that you have to constantly sharpen your skills and experience – These days “tertiary education” is no longer 3-7 years its ongoing, it never ends – if you want to remain competitive that is. When I left school, I couldnt afford University although I did exactly the same subjects you mentioned for the very same reason. I ended up doing the London gig. I went in and out of frankly, crappy jobs. I got paid well, blew it all and had nothing to show for it (after 6 years). I dont regret it though because now that I have found my calling in Digital Marketing I am hungrier and more passionate than most youngsters with degrees. In my opinion. The fact is a degree is not the be all and end all, it comes down to how much you are willing to sacrifice and learn and to keep striving for what you want in life.

What Clients Say...

Mike has spoken at a number of our IMC Conference events in JHB and CPT. We do extensive post event reviews from our delegates and Mike always performs in the top tier of speakers. His presentation skills are world class and the content always relevant to our conference theme and delegates expectations.
Mike Rocks!

I saw Mike speak at IMC Conference.

Mike is irritatingly good at public speaking. Irritating because he has an uncanny ability to read the audience and pitch the content and tone at exactly the right level. Irritating because he delivers profound insights in a common-sense manner, and because his wry sense of humour makes each presentation more like a chat with a mate than a lecture.

I saw Mike speak at IMC Conference, Johannesburg 2013.

Mike’s participation at Tribe Thursday made the event! If you’re looking for a razor-sharp intellect who is not shy to mix it up and really get people thinking then Mike’s the man! Unconventional, outspoken, lateral, and thoroughly entertaining Mike’s speaker debate at Tribe Thursday ensured we had the jagged edge to keep people talking!

I saw Mike speak at Tribe Thursday http://www.tribe-x.co.za/.