Is a university degree the key to success?

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By Hannah Brown & James Thomas

 The saying is: “You should feel legitimate to have the ambition to become CEOs, ministers, leaders of tomorrow.” Formal education isn’t for everyone but we are often led to believe that it is the only road to success. When we look at Forbes’ Global 2023 ranking of the world’s biggest companies, almost all of the CEOs or senior leaders of the top 10 companies have a Masters degree in Business Administration (MBA). Only Bank of America’s CEO, Brian Moynihan had no business qualifications. But since he holds a doctorate in law, he can hardly be said to be uneducated.

It  has been a long time since many of today’s C-suite did their studies and the world has changed a lot over time. As we look towards the future, we ask the question: ‘is it possible to become a CEO or high flying executive without an expensive university degree? In this summary of the big question, James Thomas spoke to Eloïc Peyrache, Dean of HEC Paris, Europe’s leading business school. They discussed how education can keep up with the changing world and if it’s really worth going to school to learn business.

Founded in 1883, HEC Paris (École des hautes études commerciales) is ranked amongst the top business schools in the world and offers a range of post-graduate courses. From its class of 2023,  for example, 91% of graduates had a successful job offer within 3 months. According to research done by the French government, in the European Union in 2022, on average, people aged between 25 and 64 who had ISCED 7 and 8 qualifications (Masters or Doctorate level degrees) earned 68% more than those with an ISCED 3 qualification (upper secondary level). According to Statista, the average salary for a HEC graduate in 2022 was $165,558 (€154,225.55 or N250,802). To put that in perspective the average salary in the European Union at that time was €26,136 or N42,458. Whilst those statistics certainly demonstrate that post-graduate education is advantageous, an entrepreneurial mindset or business spark doesn’t necessarily come from doing a Masters. The British billionaire, Richard Branson, shared on his LinkedIn profile: “I never went to university, but I consider life to be one long educational experience.” Branson is joined in the highly-successful but not highly educated ranks by Dell’s founder, Michael Dell, who dropped out of the University of Texas at the age of 19 after earning a gross profit of $200,000 (€186,310 or N302,978,000) in his first year of business.

Zara founder of Amancio Ortega left school at  the age of 14 and learnt to make clothes by hand from a local shirt maker. Today, she is one of the wealthiest fashion designer brands in the world. Napster was the founder and first President of Facebook. Sean Parker who, by being recruited by the FBI during high school and earning more than $80,000 a year (€74,524), convinced his parents to let him skip university and start building his career; and Tumblr founder David Karp who taught himself how to code all moved on after dropping out of high school.

“Nothing is really impossible,” says Eloïc. “You don’t have to go through business school but it will make a difference, it could be a fast track and the more complex and uncertain our world, the more leadership skills will be very important.” Eloïc says they teach their students how to set the vision, connect the dots and speak the lingo of their chosen field. “They would never be as good as a coder, as an engineer but they can discuss. And they make things happen, they get things done.”

Eloïc also stresses that a big part of ensuring the future workforce is as diverse as our society is by working on people’s ambition, to make them believe they can dream big. For this reason HEC Paris isn’t driven by high future salaries (though it’s a nice by-product for their graduates) but by helping students to figure out who they want to be and choose a series of courses to nurture that. “You should feel legitimate to have the ambition to become CEOs, ministers or leaders of tomorrow.” Though the pay check at the end might be appealing, an MBA doesn’t come without cost. The autumn 2024 intake at HEC will cost €98,000 for the MBA and €110,000 for the executive MBA including all books and materials.

Other prestigious European institutions charge similar fees such as London Business School (€134,467), INSEAD (€99,500), IESE (€105,000) and SDA Boccioni (€ 75,000).With things like TikTok, influencers, remote working and the 4-day working week – the world of business has changed enormously in recent years and it’s not set to slow down. But can education keep up and stay relevant? HEC Paris now runs a course on planetary boundaries that all students have to take in their first semester on campus which is aimed at helping them understand the effects of their decision-making.

Though climate change might sound like a buzzword to many, it’s something that’s here to stay. What Eloïc and his team at HEC has learnt is not to include everything into the syllabus that’s suddenly on everyone’s lips. “I remember once the students were all talking about very important tools to manage big data and digitalisation. In the consulting sector, it was almost 100% said ‘I don’t know how to use that Excel-type of tool and, this is costly for me.”

“So I came back on campus and said: ‘Hey, guys, we need to do something about it.’ The following year, no one talked about it,” Eloïc recalls. He says training students to use specific tools isn’t their main mission because of how quickly things change and become irrelevant. Instead, Eloïc urges people to consider education as a lifelong thing (for new tools) and for students at HEC, they focus on teaching strategic thinking and techniques to be able to navigate any new challenge the world poses.

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