Stuart Irving and Jamie Odell run leading companies. Neither has a degree. They don’t regret it.
“Much to the horror of my parents, I declared that I wanted to go into the workforce rather than go to university,” Irving, the Scottish-born chief executive of Computershare, says.
“I didn’t want to spend four or five years regurgitating things out of books. I don’t have any regrets. I’ve never felt that it’s held me back.”
The removal of restrictions on university places has led to a surge of enrolments and lower entrance scores in recent years, while the number of school leavers going into the trades hasn’t changed much.
Business Council of Australia president Catherine Livingtone opened a national debate on the topic when she queried the policy direction last week.
“I would say there are too many people going to university and not enough going through the [vocation educational training] system,” she said. “I just think some students would be better off having work experience.”
The fact Irving and Odell, the head of poker machine maker Aristocrat Leisure, do not have undergraduate degrees makes them unusual among their ASX 100 peers.
Odell says he wanted to go to university and was accepted into a marine biology course. But his parents couldn’t afford it so his early career involved a series of retail and hospitality jobs.
“I’ve enormous respect for people who go into the trades.
“Whilst in some ways that may seem like a humbler start, I think in some ways that’s a surer start if you want to really gain a profession.”
Uni students who can’t get a plumber
There were the equivalent of 170,000 more full-time students enrolled in university last year than in 2009, when the previous Labor government began lifting restrictions on places. The Coalition has committed to continuing the policy.
Research by the former Australian Workforce and Productivity Agency found occupations such as nursing, teaching, information technology and accounting were likely to experience the strongest growth.
Except for teaching, roles in these fields are filled by a combination of university graduates and those with vocational-level qualifications such as diplomas.
Demand would also spike for those with qualifications in the electrical trades. As University of Canberra vice-chancellor Stephen Parker cautioned recently, Australia risks becoming a country full of university graduates who can’t get a plumber when they need one.
A survey by The Australian Financial Review found fewer than a dozen ASX chief executives without degrees.
They include outgoing David Jones chief executive Paul Zahra, who started out as a sales assistant at Target and became a store manager at 22.
After being home-schooled in his early years, Fortescue Metals Group chief executive Nev Power did an apprenticeship with Mt Isa Mines. He did an engineering degree and a Master of Business Administration later.
Of those ASX heads who do have a bachelor degree, 21 per cent studied science, followed by commerce at 19 per cent. Engineering and economic are also common qualifications.
Like Power, Odell did an MBA later in life.
He says times have changed since he left school and the bar has been raised on qualifications required for entry-level jobs. But no matter how many degrees a candidate has, they still have to prove themselves on the job, he adds. “You’ve got to prove you’ve got the commercial spark, that you get on with others, you bring good solutions.”
A foot through the door
Living in Edinburgh after school, Irving “wrote out” for jobs at three financial institutions while watching most of his friends go to university. “I was 18 years old and I spent the first six months of my career filing bits of paper in a bank vault that was to do with stocks and shares,” he says.
That job was with the Royal Bank of Scotland, where he worked until 1998, when Computershare acquired the bank’s registry business.
“I personally think there is too much onus on having [a degree],” Irving says.
“I think that there is probably more pressure on young people to have something like that to get their foot through the door.”
Sussan Ley, Assistant Education Minister in the Abbott government, has said she wants to raise the esteem of trades training after Labor’s heavy emphasis on university education.
Her aim is to give senior secondary students greater access to pre-apprenticeships and school-based apprenticeships in the traditional trades.
When Wesfarmers managing director Richard Goyder was asked about university enrolment trends recently, he said there was a mismatch between what students chose to study and the jobs that are available.
“In WA this year, there will be 900 graduate lawyers come out of the universities and there will be 200 jobs, and that’s a scandal,” he said.
“These people have done a five-year course. You would expect entering university having some hope of prospect of a role in legal work and 700 of them aren’t going to get that and so they’re going to have to go and do something else.”
“I think that’s a significant waste of resource and an opportunity cost in terms of what these people could be doing. And we see that globally.”
with Vanessa Desloires and Tim Dodd