What Use is a Degree? Life-stories of University Graduates Andrew Ward, Lynn Jones & Alan Jenkins

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What Use is a Degree?

Life-stories of University Graduates

Andrew Ward, Lynn Jones & Alan Jenkins

ISBN: 1 86174 122 7

Table of Contents

Introduction 3

References 4

The Class of 1979 5

Carl Phillips 6

Wendy Jarman 16

James Hollett 21

The Class of 1982 23

Katherine Thomas 24

Antony Squance 32

Claire Rayment 40

The Class of 1985 46

Michael Liley 47

Emma Wilkins 54

Damian Shouler 55

The Class of 1988 60

Suzanne Caulfield 61

Neil Stephenson 67

Ruth McArthur 68

The Class of 1991 77

Adrian Terry 78

Lisa Jacklin 86

Alex Matthews 93

The Class of 1994 98

Michelle King 99

Howard Stimpson 105

Tina Yardley 113

Methodology and Acknowledgements 119

Methodology 120

Acknowledgements 123

References 124

Abstracts 125


This book contains 18 stories provided by graduates from the award-winning Geography course at Oxford Brookes University (formerly Oxford Polytechnic). The graduates are representative of the period from 1979 to 1997, during which time the Geography department in question used non-traditional teaching methods – group projects, presentations, posters, etc.

The graduate accounts are shown individually here because we found that the same course can affect graduates in completely different ways. We have explained reasons for the variation in learning outcomes in a separate article (Jenkins, Jones & Ward, 2001). Elsewhere we have provided an oral-history account of the development of the Geography department at Oxford Brookes University (Jenkins & Ward, 2001) and we have offered further background to the study (Ward & Jenkins, 1999).

In 1998, when the project began, the Oxford Brookes University Geography department had had over 20 years' experience of engaging with some important issues of modern Higher Education – modular courses, active-learning methods, skill-development and the professionalisation of staff. The department received an excellent rating from external assessors in 1995, and was awarded the BP Exploration Prize for Education in Geography in 1993.

We designed a project to study the long-term effects of this popular non-vocational degree course and the non-traditional teaching methods used in the course. We selected a representative random sample of 18 people who had graduated between 1982 and 1997 – three from each of six equidistant cohorts – and traced all eighteen graduates. (See Methodology & Acknowledgements for further details.) We interviewed sixteen (between July 1998 and January 1999) and have now brought the life-stories together in this collection.


Jenkins, A., Jones, L. & Ward, A. (2001) The Long-term Effect of a Degree on Graduate Lives, Studies in Higher Education, 26(1), pp.149-163.

Jenkins, A. & Ward, A. (2001) Moving with the Times: An Oral History of a Geography Department, Journal for Geography in Higher Education, 25(2), pp.191-208.

Ward, A. and Jenkins, A. (1999) Collecting the Life-stories of Graduates: Evaluating Students' Educational Experiences, Oral History, 27(2), pp.77-86.

The Class of 1979

Carl Phillips

On the first Saturday of 1982, a group of 40 third-year Geography students gathered at Oxford Polytechnic and boarded a hired Heyfordian coach for a 10-day field trip to Amsterdam. Wearing tank tops and flared jeans, and the occasional wide tie, they soon familiarised themselves with the omnipresent music on the coach: Shakatak Drivin' Hard.

On the second day of their field trip, the students were allocated to groups and asked to identify the major social and environmental issues in Amsterdam. Carl Phillips's project group decided to research the Biljmer, a tower-block housing estate on the south-east of the city. They compared outsiders' impressions of the housing estate with insiders' views. They interviewed people, presented their findings and displayed their conclusions on a poster.

We found that the residents were indignant about the estate's reputation with outsiders,’ said Phillips, when asked for his views by a project group making a video of the field trip. ‘The outsiders had the impression of a high level of violence in the Biljmer but that was completely unfounded.’

Later that year Carl Phillips graduated from Oxford Polytechnic with a BEd degree in Applied Education and Geography. After many years of living in London, he has recently moved to a village 12 miles south of Oxford. He spends two days a week in London and works from home the rest of the time.

The interview takes place in Oxford because Carl visits a Headington hospital twice a week for treatment to his knee, injured in a skiing accident earlier in the year. The venue for the interview is a Headington cafe that is a ten-minute walk from the main site of Oxford Brookes University.

In 1982 Carl Phillips was a fresh-faced 22-year-old student researching an Amsterdam housing estate on his final Geography field trip. Now, at 39, in November 1998, he is something very different.

Choosing the Course

I failed my A levels and retook them at sixth-form college, and my big intention was to join the merchant navy. I did all the interviews and got offered a place with Shell but I failed the medical. I found out that I was colour-blind.

My family were all teachers so teaching was an easy option. I came here to do Education and Geography. The Modular Course suited me because I was very good at failing exams. I liked the idea that I wasn't going to have the big finals. The work that I've chosen since has been on that basis. I never put myself into a final ‘big crunch’ situation.

I passed all my A levels the second time round which was a bit of a surprise – Chemistry, Geography and Geology. And I got nice grades, which was again a bit of a shock. I did the Geology in three months and managed to get a B for it. That was a cramming exercise. I just learned all the minerals and all the fossils two days before the exam and I got full marks on that paper, which meant that it was very hard to fail the rest. It overlapped with the Geography, and I was interested in plate tectonics and all those sorts of things.

It was either here or Leicester. Both of them did this modular-type course, but Leicester was a long way from the sea and the big centres for sailing. And this was closer. The prospectus said that Oxford had an active sailing club. When I came I found that it didn't. It's very much like the holiday-brochure that says there's going to be hoby-cats and lasers on the beach, but when you get there you find they are broken.

The Course

I didn't enjoy college. It was not a very pleasant experience. I found the Education course very isolating. We were based out at Wheatley and there were three guys out of 90-odd students on the Primary Education course. There were a lot of very nice ladies with very nice voices who had nice private-school educations and they had very nice cars in the car-park. I think Wheatley was very much an extension of finishing-school and I was a little bit rough and uneducated. Coming up from Portsmouth, it was another world for me.

When I was eleven my mother went to college in Portsmouth as a mature teaching student. So I went through school with a mature teaching student who was filling the house with teaching aids, making things out of cardboard and plastic and helping me with my Maths homework. I was like the little apprentice. I saw the things that she was doing and then I came to Oxford and I can't get over how disappointed I was with the quality of the Education department. It just left me cold and I had several run-ins with them over the quality of the teaching. It got to the stage where I had to do nine modules in my last term at college – you were supposed to do four a term – and I had to get eight of them and I did it.

I had to do teaching practice and two Education modules a term, so Education was the main focus all the way through. Wheatley was a very isolating place, and coming down to Headington was quite a relief because you got away from it. On the other hand you didn't feel part of Headington. That was ‘the other bit’ of the college. They tried to integrate the two campuses but it was a joke. The lecturers would think, ‘Why on earth do we have to traipse all the way out here just for a classroom?’

The thing I liked about the Geography course was that it wasn't really factual – it was more the ideas behind things. Some of the modules I did, like Food Nutrition and Climatology, were much more exact and I found those ever so difficult. The Geography was a long way from science. It was more what I would call Humanities. In the Education modules we were regurgitating quotes from psychologists and sociologists and it was pretty dire, whereas I found the Geography modules inspiring. It was a pleasure to do them. I can remember modules like Human Organisation of Space and Chinese Cultural Landscape because they were fun. Some of the time, in the Geography modules, you were thinking, ‘How the hell can this be counted as degree work?’ When I was doing the course I had major doubts about the educational content. To an outsider looking in, it must have looked like a holiday camp. But it's definitely stayed with me. I've far more memories about that than about anything I did on other modules. Chinese Cultural Landscape was about the most whacky course that you could do. You sat there and watched movies but you were left with the impression that it is easy to manipulate an image. It was quite stunning.

I remember doing my book review on The Monkey-Wrench Gang. We had the choice between Zen and the Art of Motor-Cycle Maintenance or The Monkey Wrench Gang and I definitely chose the right book. I still recommend it to people because it's just like environmental anarchism.

I'm starting to remember things now. I did a project about lead in petrol. It was when they were taking lead out of petrol and I did a ‘hang on a second’ project – who gains, does it actually improve things, where does all the research money come from? I have always been cynical about all these sorts of things. I question a lot of what goes on. The course was definitely asking you to question everything. I keep going back to the Chinese Cultural Landscape course. At the time it seemed bizarre – why are we doing this course? – but it was probably the most eye-opening course. It really made you challenge what you were seeing. The staff were a bunch of lefties – most of them – but they were very nice people. Jenkins and Keene were the warmer ones but you were slightly in fear of some of them.

In Education the people would stand up in front of you and tell you. The Geography course was much more involved. It was what I call ‘real learning’. You were participating, there were lots of different media and it was interesting. They played the attention-span game and they actually changed things every ten or fifteen minutes, whereas we slept through Education lectures because they told us about it but never did it.

Whenever I think about college I always think of the Geography side. That's my first thought. Then I have the negative thought, which is the Education side. And then I think about other things. My immediate picture is the lady who was the housemother. I'm trying to remember her name. That's right, Heather Jones. I remember her because she was the focus of everything. I never had a clue about timetables but she always knew. I have a PA now because somebody has to make sure that I've done all the things I'm supposed to have done.

You'll need to jog my memory a little about field trips. Oh, yes, Scotland. I did my 21st birthday in Scotland. We were all marooned by the tail-end of some sort of hurricane. Where did we go to? Oban. That's it. We went to Oban and a bear had escaped and was on the island. It was my 21st birthday so my memories are of being incredibly drunk and trying to climb into a police van. I was put in the bath and all those sorts of things. We did some walking up very muddy hills but there had been some sort of gale or hurricane so we couldn't do a lot of the things that we were supposed to do, like measuring rivers. Shame! We were stuck in town – ‘Get on with it, guys, have a nice day.’ And we were very good at that. It was a mixed-year group and there were some nice people on that trip.

We did another field trip when we played the bah-fah game. Give me some of the names of the people who ran the courses ... yes, this was David Pepper and Peter Keene. They set up two communities in different rooms and split the course into two groups. One group speaks the language of bah and the other one speaks the language of fah and you send missionaries from one room to the other to try to find out what the other culture is all about. That was fascinating. I was quite impressed with that and I bought the book afterwards, but I've never found myself in an environment to do it again.

I can't think where we went for that field trip [Caer Llan] and I can't tell you what that course was about but that one game left an impression and that was enough. My wife is Japanese and we go out to Japan every year, and I am completely obsessed with the way people interpret the Japanese. Yeah, I think they've done some horrible things in the past but their whole culture is completely different to ours. Their acceptance of death is incredible. We tend to have this sterile image of other cultures, as if you go away and eat horse and dolphin.

The big field trip, the one to Amsterdam, was a laugh. We did a piece of work on the Biljmer and then five years later it was flattened by a Jumbo Jet. I was in a group with very nice girls. Once we'd decided what we were going to do, and they'd accepted our proposal, we just made sure we got the right result. The Biljmer was supposed to be the really rough area of Amsterdam. The Moluccans lived there and no-one would go there. We did a day of interviewing, asking people who didn't live there what they thought of the place and they all said, ‘It'll be terrible.’ And then we went out there on the monorail and it was absolutely fantastic. The people there said how much they loved living there. On the video we did recordings of the birds and the ponds and said, ‘We're in the middle of this ghetto, isn't it wonderful?’ The people who had been there said they thought it was nice, but 95 per cent of the people who hadn't been there said they had a perception that it was terrible.

Breakfasts were awful but the high spot was the Heineken Brewery trip. Shakatak was playing on the coach all the time and everyone bought a copy. Shakatak was an instrumental band, and the song was Drivin' Hard. That was us on our trip across Europe. I travel a lot with my boat now and we go to Medemblik, and Amsterdam is only round the corner. It's really easy to get there. But at the time it was a big adventure. I hadn't been to Europe.

I enjoyed the work we did and I enjoyed putting it together afterwards. We said all the right things so we got an A for our coursework. I'd never had an A before and it did seem that you didn't have to do very much to get an A. But you can't take it back, guys! On the other hand we had come to the right conclusion and the fact that we'd come to the right conclusion very quickly rather than taking a long time to get there shouldn't make any difference. I was very proud of it. I've still got the report at home. I was going to bring it up today, but I didn't have time to get it. It's the only thing I kept. And a few books – the bah-fah book and some town trails.

Give my regards to everybody in the Geography department. Tell them I still think of them as if they were 20 years younger. They are little time-capsules in the memory.

Student Life

I started sailing about two years before I went to college. I've always done championships. My first-ever sail was at a championship. In places like Portsmouth and Southampton sailing is the equivalent to boxing. It's a poor man's sport. There's a huge anti-sailing snobbery in Portsmouth. I was quite stunned when I came away to find that people in other areas perceive sailing as something that you aspire to.

When I joined the college there wasn't a sailing club as such. They had two old dinghies that were pretty atrocious and had never been sailed. The club had a membership, because people would sign up at the freshers' fair, but there was nothing beyond that. I had my own boat and a couple of other people had their own boats. The problem with the sailing club was that you had to do everything. You had to raise the money, organise the training, make sure people turned up, organise the cars and drive them there. It was like a full-time admin job. No time for lectures!

One nice thing about the Modular Course at Oxford was that I was able to pick and choose courses. Because I'd always had this big thing about sailing, I was able to do a cartography module and I learned more about clouds in Climatology. But there was a dilemma with the sailing club: Are you there as a sailing instructor or are you there to become a better sailor yourself? The Wednesday afternoon sailing was almost a chore, but afterwards we stayed on for club racing. We went to the student championships but we lacked equipment, we lacked skill and we lacked training. I did a lot of sailing through college and I've carried on with that ever since.

There was also a big Canoeing Club and I joined that. There were two lecturers in the engineering department who were senior instructors. They were always there so there was always going to be a canoeing session. And we had use of the swimming pool so you could do water-polo and rolling and things. It was very organised. Lots of trips. One of the reasons I enjoyed the canoe club was that it was on a plate.

Most weekends in the winter we went surfing in Wales. I ended up as president of that club as well. There were a lot of people keen to do things in the Surfing Club so I didn't have to do everything. They were very enthusiastic whereas in the sailing there were only about two of us who were competent and there were an awful lot of people who wanted to go sailing. We needed certain numbers in order to get your grants from the Students Union but boats are very expensive compared to surfboards. You buy second-hand boats and they fall apart so you're screwing them back together all the time. The Canoeing Club had very nice equipment and you could just go and do it, either on your own or in groups of twenty. You could just go off for the weekend with a couple of canoes and a tent and find a beach. That was good.

It did distance me from the other students. I'd go into lectures and people were telling me about all the pubs or the punting or the picnic down by the Cherwell, and I didn't know where these places were. I spent my money on travelling and sailing. I was a little bit distant from their lives, but on the other hand I got myself into something which I've kept going ever since. I've been most places in the world with my sailing. I met my wife through sailing. Sailing has been the main thing in my life ever since, and I just go to work to pay for it.

After Graduating

I trained as a teacher and I couldn't get a job. I did about 70 or 80 applications for different jobs but it was a bad time for teachers. I'd always worked through holidays at college and I'm one of these people who's never out of work. So I went to work for the Social Services.

The first two months I worked in an assessment centre and that was fantastic. They were hard-nut children, repeat offenders brought in by the police, and they were with you for three days. You had to do an assessment for whether they could go into a children's home or whether they would have to go back to the courts. You wrote the court reports. You never knew what was going to happen and it was fantastic fun, and the Assessment Centre had all the facilities – the go-kart track and the basketball court. You learned a lot about people.

Then I worked in various children's homes and I liked the rough ones. Again it was a real experience of life. I'm not surprised about any of the paedophile stories. The qualifications for most of the people working there were that they'd just rung up and said that they were available. I was quite exceptional in that I had a degree and training in Education. You were essentially a cook, cleaner and person to lock the door at night. It also got to the stage where I was walking down the street in Portsmouth wondering if a child was going to lash out at me. That wasn't healthy. So I applied for some teaching jobs about May [1983] and I got the second one I applied for.

I went into teaching in Ealing [London]. I taught for nearly three years in Education Priority Areas (EPAs). I got my scale 2 after my first year because I transferred to a special team that took over one of those lovely schools that was given two terms to improve or it would be shut down. I had great fun. The way I taught was nothing to do with lesson plans or the things they showed you at college. It was shaped by what I'd seen. I was definitely influenced by the lecturers on the Geography course. What we were being shown back then was very good and it had more influence on my actual teaching than anything I learned in Education. I swear to this day that I might as well have not done the Education course for the amount of value it gave me as a teacher.

I went in to school the week before I started my first teaching job and I transformed the classroom. I hung spinnakers from the ceiling to lower the ceiling and I moved everything around. I did away with my desk and it was hands-on management: ‘You don't come to me, I come to you.’ And I was into body-language. I don't know how much of that I'd seen at college or how much I'd read about it but I had very good discipline. Eighteen months later I was giving talks to teachers and they were being brought to my class to see how it was run.

I had also been given a PE post, even though I wasn't PE trained, and on my first day of teaching, the head came up to me at about 8 am and said, ‘The PE Inspector's coming in today, and he wants to see you teach.’ Ealing had always had a fantastic PE programme, and I'd noticed the books in the staff-room and I'd read about warm-ups. The PE Inspector was called Jim Hall – a name that stays with you for ever! I got the class in the hall and I said to him, ‘Mr Hall, I'm not PE trained, it's going to do me far more good if you take this lesson, I'll learn a lot more.’ And he said, ‘Fine, you do the warm-up, give me a nod and I'll take over.’ And that was it. Afterwards he told me, ‘I was more than happy to do that for you, but I'm coming back in a month to watch you do it, and in the meantime there are these courses you should go on, and the next meeting for the PE Association for Ealing is on Tuesday and you're going to be there.’ He also said to me, ‘If you're going to carry on working in EPAs, most of the children you're going to teach won't have jobs when they leave school, so you're going to have to make sure that they have happy memories of the time they were at school, and you're going to have to give them a positive role-model or they're just going to go out and beat up grannies.’

In that first year, I became a squash coach, a tennis coach, a netball coach, a cricket coach, and I did my football coaching awards. I was going on residential weekends and learning how to abseil. That was fantastic. Most of my teaching skills came from this PE side but I was aware of how the Geography guys were teaching – as soon as the interest is lost, stop doing it. That's been my big strength since leaving teaching. I know when to stop something and come at it another way and keep the relationship going. But I didn't learn that from my teacher training. I was trained a lot about the History of Education, and Psychology and Philosophy. That was pretty dull. But the Geography lecturers were walking the talk. They were doing what you were being told about. What they were doing was more coaching than lecturing. Most of the other teaching that you experienced at college was very much on the A level method – I've got the book and I'm going to read sections of it to you.

I taught for two years and two terms. Then I got extremely depressed because there were lots of things in teaching that I didn't like. I was doing deputy headship interviews and I got offered one in Dorset but they told me that they'd only pay me £9,000. At the time my rent in London was £5,000, and I was thinking, ‘I can't afford to live like this.’ I was constantly waiting for the next pay cheque and praying for the next holiday to come round so I could get out and do some work. I could earn more in a summer holiday than in a term of teaching, and I was doing more and more on the computing side. Agency work. Going into banks and typing data into a computer for them. I couldn't type particularly quickly but I wasn't scared of computers.

I was acting deputy head at a school in Islington and it was December. We had snow in the playground and it was after the Harrods bombs [1983]. We had a bomb scare so we took all the children straight out. No coats. So we're all in the playground and there's snow and it's cold, and there's 200 children, all very young, all without coats, and we're having to move everyone out of the way because the police cars and the fire-brigade are arriving. We went to the head, and said, ‘Can we see if we can get the coats?’ He talked to the police. ‘Okay, the teachers can go in, would they all have a look round the classrooms?’ We went in. Got the coats. Straight out. It was about two o'clock and we'd been out there for about an hour when the fire-brigade drove off. Then one police-car drove off and the other police officers were getting into their car. Our head runs across to them: ‘Can we go back in?’ ‘It's up to you,’ they said. ‘What do you mean?’ ‘Well, you'd better ring the local authority.’ So the head rang the local authority and they said, ‘Yeah, we know you've had a bomb scare.’ ‘Can we go back into the school?’ ‘It's up to you.’ And you can't imagine that much responsibility. As a teacher, if anything happens to a child, you can lose your job.

Also that year a little boy went home and told his mummy that a man had played with him in the toilets. There were three male teachers in that school and we were all under suspicion and were interviewed by the police: ‘Where were you?’ I was building my career, going on all the right courses, doing all the right stuff, and I could have been a deputy head ... but why? You can lose everything that you've worked on. As a teacher you can't indemnify yourself, and you know that the child and the parents are going to win over the teacher every time. And the money was bad.

I gave up teaching and immediately got an invite to go to the pre-World Sailing Championships in Japan. I was 27 and it was the first time I had ever flown which was quite exciting. I got that work because I was a teacher. Life fitted together. They wanted someone who was an English teacher to go out and get some sponsors for the pre-World, fully paid, and I was out there for five weeks as a guest of a hotel group. I had an absolute ball and I met my wife.

When I came back I was self-employed doing computing in the city. After six months I decided I needed to join a company so I went through the motor industry and worked for Volvo. Then I worked for RTZ. Then I suddenly found myself in hospital. A car rolled off a jack and I was temporarily paralysed. I had to have a back operation and a disc removed. My boss came to see me and said, ‘Apparently you won't be able to drive for a year.’ I said, ‘No.’ He said, ‘What do you want to do – do you want to resign or shall we sack you?’ I was in my first six months at RTZ.

I went back to supply teaching, but I wanted to get back into a corporation and American Express were recruiting. I joined them in 1989. Two days after I joined they launched a new financial services company so I was in that, and all of a sudden I found myself as a financial advisor, doing pensions and investments. It was fee-based stuff for clients. At the time it was all very radical, and I enjoyed it, and I've been a financial advisor ever since.

I think the first time I ever saw a video camera being used was in the Geography department. You did a presentation, it was videoed and you saw yourself do it. And yet that was the crux of all the training I did with American Express. It was all ‘see yourself’ self-analysis. First you tell people what you thought of your own work and then they tell you what they thought of it. I use the same coaching models in my sailing. Self-criticism is far harsher than criticism from anybody else, and you take it from yourself.

Working for American Express was great until they sold my part of the company about five years ago. I suddenly found myself working for United Friendly Assurance ... for about three hours. Then I resigned. Now I'm a self-employed financial advisor. I've expanded to about 70 clients, and it pays the bills. I'm still very into systems and e-mail and things like that – I've got a little Internet company – and life's good. I really enjoy what I'm doing. We are planning to leave the country in two years time to go and live in Japan because I can do my job from Japan as well as I can do it from Oxfordshire.

That's where we are with life. We have a couple of little children who are bilingual – Japanese and English – and I'm very proud of them. In Japan school starts at the age of seven and the eldest will be seven in the year 2000 so she'll be wanting to start school then. And the climate in Japan is fantastic.

The Next Sailing Championship

Since I left college I've had a lot of coaching and I became a sailing coach. The whole thing with sailing is that it's an aerofoil and you've got to have the right angle of attack. Somebody pointed out the obvious things to me many times and eventually it clicked. I did exactly what I was told and all of a sudden I was very fast. I tend to sail near the front of the fleet now.

The accident [1988] destroyed my progression in sailing. Two years ago at Christmas, I was working at my computer in my office at home and I sneezed and my legs cut off. I thought, ‘Oh, dear, it's gone again.’ And it was the next disc up. They took that disc out and I learned how to walk again. To me it's always, ‘Where's the next championship, I've got to get fit for that?’ So we got fit for the one in Australia.

Coming back from Australia I decided it was time to learn how to ski. We called in at Japan, I took lessons from an individual tutor and I fell over on the second lesson and snapped the cruciate ligaments in my knee. That's another year out of sailing. They now want to take the knee-cap away but that would mean that I can't sail next year and we've entered a big Championship in Japan. I've lost two stone in the last two months because I want to get back into condition for sailing. It's what motivates me to do things. Yes, there's the family and all that. They're important but our whole lifestyle wouldn't be the same if it wasn't for going sailing. My wife has now become a very good sailor and we compete together. I can clean my mind out just by thinking about boats. Sailing is total relaxation although it's very energetic at the time.

Regrets? I wish I'd sailed from the age of about ten and done all the useful stuff. At our championships last year there was a 78-year-old man and he beat me, so there's still hope for the future. You just get more experienced and better. I could fill your tape with sailing stories.

What Use is a Degree?

Would I do the course again? Probably not. I'd train as an accountant or go and work for Barclays Bank at sixteen. I've been involved with a lot of recruitment over the last 10 or 15 years, and I'm completely cynical about people's CVs. I'm not interested in degrees. It stuns me how people have so much faith in degrees, as if they are the be-all and end-all. My degree has not meant anything. I did a BEd – it was another year to do honours – and I've never found myself in a situation where anybody's said, ‘I've got a first, therefore I'll get this job.’ I work with colleagues who have no qualifications, not even O levels, but they are extremely clever and earning a couple of hundred thousand a year. I'm not switched on by the money side – as long as I've got enough I'm happy – but I don't really see that qualifications have much bearing. Successful people in the City tend to have been very successful in a sport or music or another activity. The ones who rise to the top of companies and corporations tend to have reached a high standard independently of their education. They are very confident people and other people respect them and want to be with them and around them.

Mine is a wonderful job but no-one tells you about it when you're a kid. No-one tells you to go and work as an insurance salesman, or a car salesman or an estate agent, and yet there are people with the most fantastic quality of life doing those jobs professionally. What degree do you need for those jobs?

When we came to college there were people at Wheatley doing the foundation course in accountancy. They were the lowest of the low because they were on a one-year course, and yet some of those people went on to do their further qualifications in accountancy and then became actuaries and are now my clients, earning hundreds of thousands a year, and they're jetting off round the world doing consultancy work. Nobody ever told me about that one. The curriculum was that you did your A levels and then you got your degree. Looking back at the schools career progression, you're not really told about what this degree is going to do for you. The nice thing about doing the BEd was that you were going to be a teacher at the end, so you actually had something you could go and get a job with.

At American Express we looked at how you have a successful team, and to have a successful team you have to have the balance of personalities, so I recognise the expressives and the drivers and the amiables. I know I'm analytical because I analyse everything, and most of my clients are drivers. But you have to have them all. No-one points these things out to you when you're at school, and no-one says to you, ‘Hey, you're not a driver, you can't operate like that, that's not your style.’ No-one ever taught you to recognise those things as you were going through. Careers advice could be so much better.

The problems in group work, whatever the course, is that you have the doers and you have the people who are along for the ride, and you have the people who have ideas and you have the people who are trying to do. There's always different ways to approach things and there's always a huge amount of conflict that has to be resolved before you actually get round to doing anything. Part of the work that we did with American Express was to accept that when you were building a team you looked for the complementary people.

One thing that Oxford taught me was that I am very good at revising the night before and the morning of the exam and useless the week before.

I've had to take lots of professional exams but I've learned to control my short-term memory. I'm very good at concepts but not detail. Then you collect famous quotes, like that of Henry Ford, who had never passed an exam in his life. Someone interviewing Ford was trying to make out that he wasn't a very clever man. ‘Well ask me a question,’ Ford said. So the interviewer asked him a question. ‘I don't know the answer to that,’ said Ford, ‘But if you'd like to give me one minute I'll call in someone that does.’

I used to love the spatial-awareness stuff – walking around the towns. That had a big effect on me and it's something I still like doing – the sensation of going from space to space. I've kept lots of the town trails I've been on. I've got them all on file and one day I'll go on the Oxford one again. Those sorts of things – how you looked at your environment – had a big effect.

For example, to me the Japanese landscape is devastated. It's mostly volcanic mountains, terraced all the way up with ‘hats’ of trees at the top. When it's covered with snow it looks beautiful but in the summer it's just fields. Then, after my second visit to Japan, I was on a train to Chelmsford and I looked out of the window and I suddenly realised that our landscape was exactly the same. I saw a steep hill with a crown of trees at the top and the rest of it was fields. This is the concept of how you perceive other people's environment in the way that people want you to. What is shown on the television here about Japan is not the Japan that I know.

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