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If English universities were banks, they would be investigated for mis-selling

Imagine what would happen if the motivation universities applied to selling their own wares was redirected to help their student entrepreneurs?
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Last week’s social media timelines were dominated by photos of children on the first day of the new school year. This was followed by snaps of apprentices being inducted into businesses, as was the case at Pimlico Plumbers.

The next education milestone that will have proud parents uploading pics to Instagram and Twitter is the moment their kids pack their bags for university.

In just a few weeks’ time those money-grabbing higher education establishments, which are more commercially cutthroat than some of the most successful enterprises, will be welcoming their next intake of “customers”.

Unfortunately, in the case of universities, the customer isn’t always right and students are consistently being led up the garden path.

These are cash-hungry institutions that dishonestly trap students into eye-watering debts of more than £50,000.

The National Audit Office openly said if English universities were banks, they would be investigated for mis-selling. Fees are up to nine grand a year, and the way the university industry puts bums on seats is by promising a golden life as a result of a degree. In thousands of cases this isn’t true.

It is fraud, plain and simple. And just because they are educators, shouldn’t make them immune from regulation. It was only last year that the Advertising Standards Authority wrist-slapped six universities for “misleading marketing claims”.

Failing students who fall under the spell of universities’ claims of a golden future end up like the rats following the Pied Piper – although in their case they’re drowning in debt rather than in a river.

The only way they could justify prices is if they delivered education and qualifications that actually benefited the students, the economy and society. I am convinced that if young people really knew what university was offering we’d see a spike in those interested in apprenticeships.

That said, I recognise that universities can spawn business people – just look at the tech sector, which contains many spin-out firms that began in higher education.

There are also a decent number of students who either run businesses or plan to start a new enterprise while studying. Research by Santander says this accounts for a quarter of students who, collectively, have businesses that have a turnover of £1 billion.

Entrepreneurial endeavours should always be encouraged and I am a huge fan of any young person who wants to start their own business. I just wonder if the same culture exists within universities.

The challenge is keeping these enterprises breathing post-graduation and not ending up among the business death statistics. Some four in ten businesses go to the wall after just five years of trading, which is a scary number and proves more has to be done to help small firms survive and grow.

That includes university startups, which, as well as having the usual first-step challenges, also have to overcome a non-relevant education environment. It can suck the air out of any fledgeling enterprise.

What if, instead, the motivation that universities apply to selling their own wares to young people was redirected to help their student entrepreneurs? And the educators had more knowledge and experience of what’s needed to make a business fly in the real world. Just imagine the multiple that billion quid figure could then become!

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About Author

Charlie Mullins

Charlie Mullins OBE is the archetypal entrepreneur – having started his business from scratch and then building it into a multi-million pound enterprise. From humble beginnings growing up on an estate in South London, he left school with no qualifications, but after a four-year plumbing apprenticeship he started his own firm, Pimlico Plumbers, which now generates a turnover in excess of £30m and boasts many well-known names among its many clients including Simon Cowell, Helen Mirren and Richard Branson. He has been a regular contributor on Real Business since 2011 and is particularly interested in promoting and encouraging apprenticeships.

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