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Success tip: Attend the best university you can get into

While apparently obvious, many students attend lesser quality universities by choice, rather than due to financial compulsion. It is a serious mistake.

7 December 2016

I talk to many young people. One thing which regularly dismays me is the number who choose to attend the nearest university, rather than choosing the best university that will admit them.

Sometimes the choice is forced on the student for financial reasons, because they are unable to live away from home. However in many cases the decisive factor is not cost, but convenience or choosing to attend a university that other friends are going to.

Why the choice of university is so important

Despite the efforts of lower tier universities to pretend otherwise, some universities provide much better teaching, and have much better physical facilities, than others.

Furthermore, the better universities attract the better students. Having more bright students around you normally aids your own learning, as a result of interaction with one's fellow students. There is a saying in the Bible:

As iron sharpens iron, so one person sharpens another.

Proverbs 27:17, New International Version

Finally, future employers look not only at degree subjects and grades; they pay close attention to which university you attended. The better the university, the more likely you are to be invited for interview, other things being equal.

My own experience

I have shared my thoughts on this with the students at Clare College Cambridge in my Alumnus of the Year speech, and also sometimes when speaking to school pupils.

My time at Cambridge was spent studying pure mathematics. Almost none of that has ever been used in my career.

However, apart from being a wonderful place to spend three years, Cambridge did something for me that was quite subtle but incredibly important.

In life, people often try to establish their superiority by patronising you. Especially if you come from a poor working class background. Especially if you are part of an ethnic or religious minority.

However from the time that I graduated, I have never ever struggled to persuade people that I met, whether they were at work or elsewhere, that I am intelligent and well-educated.

You meet somebody new, and they ask you “what did you do etc.” As soon as they know that you went to Cambridge they never doubt your intelligence or education.

That might seem quite trivial, but I want you to imagine how much harder life is if you don’t have that kind of automatic VIP pass to convince any person you meet, no matter what their background, about how intelligent and well educated you are. It’s an incredible asset throughout the rest of your life.

Your university does not determine your life outcomes

The world doesn’t end if you don’t get into a top university. I just want to give you one example, because it is someone I know personally.

The Senior Partner of PricewaterhouseCoopers from 2008-2016 was called Ian Powell.

I got to know him because we were both partners together in the Manchester office, and then I saw a lot of him after he became Senior Partner because I was on the firm’s Supervisory Board.

If you look up the firm’s accounts on the internet, you will see that as Senior Partner he earned about £4 million per year.

Few could ever guess where he graduated from in 1977. It was Wolverhampton Polytechnic, which since 1992 has been Wolverhampton University. They are understandably proud of him, and in 2010 gave him an honorary doctorate.


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