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Self Made Man, Bobbie Carlyle

Success without a degree, is it possible?

By No author

Two elitist countries

The French have what they call ‘ Grandes Ecoles’ and the Brits have Oxbridge. For both countries, they are considered to be ‘La Crème de la Crème’ of the education system. Young people aim to go there in the hope that they too will be part of their country’s elite. Both countries seem to be based therefore on a relatively elitist education system. In France, the system is such that there is a two-tier system within it: ‘The Grandes Ecoles’ and the Universities. The ‘Grandes Ecoles’ entry selection tries to make us believe that this is not the case and aims at promoting equality amongst all students. Started by Sciences Po, the objective is to adapt the entrance exams to students coming from underprivileged backgrounds. Another attempt is to encourage the top ‘Grandes Ecoles’ to bridge the gap with students coming from more modest schools. Earlier this year, HEC, ENS, ESSEC and Polytechnique, the four most prestigious French ‘Grandes Ecoles’ met  with 6th form students. The thought behind it was to introduce a regular tutoring between 6th form students from modest backgrounds and students from the elite ‘Grandes Ecoles’.

Egalité des chances.
   Egalité des chances.
The idea of equal opportunity for all is of course very appealing. In reality however, this is unlikely to happen overnight. Today, for those who do not come from the elite schools, the chances of access to the top ranks are practically non-existent. Indeed, most employers judge candidates first and foremost on their academic achievements. They will employ mostly those with degrees from ‘Grandes Ecoles’ which select their students using entrance exams for their students and recruit their lecturers based on their academic achievements and their publications. Does it suggest that the French model hides behind what is in fact an illusion and students do not really have equal opportunities? This in fact, reinforces the attraction that young French people have for Great Britain. They believe that they will be given an opportunity to succeed with or without what is being asked of them in France.  British employers are more willing to give young people a chance to prove their worth through motivation, hard work and results. They believe more in the person and are prepared to reward according to the output of each employee. For French expatriates, coming to the UK is equivalent to believing in the ‘British Dream’ in the same way that people believed in the ‘American dream’; anyone living in the US had the potential of succeeding through hard work, courage and determination.


Succeeding without a university degree

The political system proves that not only is it possible to succeed in business without a university degree, it is also possible to rise to the top levels of British politics. This is something practically impossible in France. For instance, James Callaghan (prime minister in Great Britain from 1976 to 1979) was an autodidact in politics. A working class man without a university degree he rose to the top job in politics. Similarly, John Major, the former prime minister from 1990 until 1997, started from nothing before he slowly climbed up the ladder of the Standard Chartered Bank to then begin his political career. In comparison, France nurtures its future presidents at l’ENA, Science Po or even Saint Cyr, some of the most prestigious schools in France.
In England, many businessmen left school early. One of the best examples is that of Alan Sugar. When Alan Sugar left school he was only 16. Who would have thought that he would become one of the most respected businessmen in the UK? It is to a certain extent for this reason that he has accepted to have his own programme on TV – The apprentice. Contestants have to prove their worth as business people. The winner will get a job to work at Alan Sugar’s company. Another self-made businessman is Richard Branson who was not particularly brilliant at school and whose headmaster said to him: “Either you will end up in jail or being a millionaire”.  This must have been a man with a great understanding of people. He was not wrong given that Branson is now one of the richest men in Europe thanks to the Virgin empire he created.
Succeeding without a degree is therefore possible in Great Britain. A study shows that 10 % of the FTSE 100 company directors do not have a university degree. Surprising, given that most of the French CEOs went through one of the top ‘Grandes Ecoles’ (Polytechnique , ENA or a top business school).

Differences between France and Great Britain  
Although both countries are elitist, they do not have the same elite. What do Richard Branson, Anita Roddick, Alan Sugar, Ann Gloag  have in common ? All of them have become millionaires without having a University degree. In comparison, the most important CEOs in France not only went to university but to one of the best. Jean-Luc Lagardere, founder of Group Lagardere, went to Supelec, Bernard Arnault, one of the richest men in France, head of LVMH, was at Polytechnique. For the French, going to university is not optional to succeed professionally. For the Brits, going to university does not guarantee success.
Succeeding in GB is more defined by personal commitment. For those who have not been lucky enough to attend the most prestigious schools or universities, there is still a chance to succeed by proving your worth via the quality of your work and your commitment. It is with this in mind that a British family will invest in its children’s success. Families find normal to spend vast amount of money for their children’s education (c£5k per term). This is considered an individual choice and it is promoted by the fact that people are encouraged to take control. In France this idea would be highly criticised and highly unfair because the social system in France is clear on the subject: Education should be the same for everyone and above all free. This difference is ultimately the most important point between Britain and France. Britain accepts its system because it believes in personal success without having to go through university whilst France still cherishes the idea of an egalitarian society where education is theoretically accessible to all and is the key to success.


Sir Alan Sugar.

Sir Alan Sugar.


21/07/2010 - adrien_satigny said :

C'est un tres bon article. Je partage entierement ce qui y est dit! Je suis suisse et j'ai travaille quelques annees en France... le pires de ma vie! Les francais sont les rois de l'irrealisme melange a une pointe assez incroyable de mediocrite, en depit de leur soif de diplomes!!!

17/04/2009 - francagiunta said :

Great article - thank you.


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