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Professional networking: The unexpected benefit of university that is kickstarting entrepreneurship

Connor Campbell, NerdWallet
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Almost a decade on from England’s increase in tuition fees, and in the midst of a Covid-19 pandemic that has fundamentally changed the university experience, the reasons for going to uni in the UK have shifted. 

According to our NerdWallet study, more and more students are consciously looking to build professional networks and connections that can serve them once they graduate. In fact, almost a quarter of current undergraduate students claim that is their main reason for going to university.

In 2021, graduates are entering a competitive jobs market where more people than ever hold a degree. At the same time, high tuition fees turn that degree into an expensive asset, the value of which needs to be maximised to compensate for its cost. It should be no surprise, then, that undergrads go to university feeling the need to kickstart their professional life before it has even really begun.

The business of going to university

While people already see university as a stepping stone to the working world, there does seem to be a generational shift in attitudes – namely a more marked awareness of the pressures that surround further education. 

Indeed, the 24% of current undergraduates seeking to build professional connections at university is a sharp increase compared to those who have already graduated, with only 14% of that group saying they attended university to build such a network.

Just over a third (37%) of this older cohort, meanwhile, said pursuing a degree was mainly to improve their career prospects, rising to more than half (55%) of current undergraduates. 

These figures point to the further businessification of higher education, with students increasingly going to university not necessarily to learn but to climb the first few rungs of their career ladder.

Spheres of influence: when social and business connections collide

Of course, this doesn’t negate the other, maybe more traditional, reasons for going to university. 

Although only 12% of undergrad students said they are at university to enjoy the social life on offer, 24% said they are hoping to meet people who could potentially become lifelong friends.

And that makes sense when viewed alongside the 24% looking to build a professional network.

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It might be a cynical way to look at the university experience, but whether you go into your degree hoping to make friends, or to try to build business connections, your social circle and your professional network will likely converge in the future.

In other words, it is inaccurate to treat those two aims as completely separate pursuits. After all, at 18 years old, you know as little about your own lifelong career journey as that of your newfound friends. 

Rise of the entrepreneur

While it is true that the Covid-19 pandemic has altered what it means to go to university, it has also created an explosion of entrepreneurial spirit in the UK. 

A report from the Office for National Statistics shows that there was a 24.5% increase in the number of newly incorporated businesses when comparing the first quarter of 2020 and 2021. That was ‘the largest quarter one year on year increase since 2012’.

People often think of entrepreneurship as an alternative to going to university. NerdWallet’s study, for example, found that 46% of respondents would recommend a young person with a strong business idea to take out a business loan instead of going to university.

However, the relationships you build at university can be a vital part of the process of starting your own business.

By Connor Campbell

What are the benefits of a degree, in relation to creating your own business?

NerdWallet asked entrepreneur Richard Murray about the benefits of a degree in relation to creating your own business. Murray studied history at the University of Sheffield, before joining PwC as an accountant, and then Morgan Stanley as a consultant. Unsatisfied with that career path, he went on to create his own business, Murray’s Fresh Fish, selling produce to some of London’s biggest restaurants, before moving on to his next venture, Foodchain.

Murray said: “A degree is useful because it gives you the momentum, the confidence to take those risks; having a good kind of network, a good group of friends, is very important to being confident enough to make that decision to go off and do something on your own.” 

He added that he personally benefited from a business introduction through someone he met at university: “University is a proven place to go and find like-minded people, isn’t it? You could still argue that is the power of this kind of networking.”

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