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11 days ago

Are university degrees overrated?

Larry Ellison, billionaire founder of Oracle and a two-time university drop out, delivering commencement speech at University of Southern California
Larry Ellison, billionaire founder of Oracle and a two-time university drop out, delivering commencement speech at University of Southern California

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‘Career’ is a word that just sounds fancy to youngstars and a word that scares the freshly ‘out in the market’ youth. Today, the word holds more freight and anxious anticipation than ever for the vast and ever-evolving landscape in this economy of one CV against hundreds. But within this sea of trends, the latest question of whether a university degree is the sole key to unlocking success has sparked endless debate.

Recently, UK Prime Minister Rishi Sunak posted on Twitter: “You don’t need a university degree to succeed in life.” His position surprised many, given his own impressive academic background. He graduated with a first-class bachelor’s degree in Philosophy, Politics, and Economics from Lincoln College, Oxford, and later earned a master’s degree from Stanford University in California as a Fulbright Scholar.

The ongoing debate though, gives something to think about as to is the parameter to success thus linear? Or, are there other factors too that must be considered? Well, the answer is definitely not linear.

While a university degree undoubtedly opens doors and equips individuals with specialised knowledge, it is not the sole determinant of success. But a university degree cannot always equip someone with the skills necessary to make decisions in worldly trades. History is filled with inspiring stories of individuals who have carved their own paths and achieved remarkable feats without formal degrees.

Mark Zuckerberg, the co-founder of Facebook, famously dropped out of Harvard University to pursue his entrepreneurial vision. Today, he stands as one of the most influential figures in the tech world, demonstrating that academic qualification doesn’t always dictate pathways. Similarly, Bill Gates, the co-founder of Microsoft, left Harvard to focus on building his software empire. Indian Billionaire Gautam Adani moved to Mumbai at 18 to work as a diamond sorter and set up his own diamond brokerage two years later. Now his net worth is valued at over US$ 6.0 billion.

Success has many faces — not only in the world of money and industry, in the field of stardom, arts, and many more sectors of life. There have been shining stars who rose to fame and shone on the wings of their talents and hardwork, crafting a presence that is based on how real life trades are done. And this only consists of people who are present in the media. Outside of it, each and every day we cross paths with someone who is successful in what they chose to do -- with knowledge from reality, and skills that are honed over time and resilience.

Bangladesh, too, boasts numerous examples of individuals who have defied the traditional education route and achieved remarkable success.

Bashir Ahmed, founder and managing director of Western Engineering (Pvt) Limited, had to drop out when he was in his first year of college. But now he is a self-made successful businessman with 17 companies. The annual revenue of his group of companies is now nearly Tk 35 billion (3,500 crore).

The set of examples written in the dominant media and web only account for the conventional success stories. There are innumerable success stories that hold from entrepreneurship to amazing small ventures, or just marking a space for others - those are success as well.

However, it is crucial to recognise the invaluable role of academia in shaping and advancing society. Universities provide a platform for acquiring specialised knowledge, fostering critical thinking, and nurturing research and innovation. From groundbreaking scientific discoveries to the development of life-saving technologies, academia has been instrumental in advancing human development.

To make informed choices, and documenting the experiences, analysing them, higher education is crucial to the core. There is no definition of success without sustainable knowledge. Knowledge and education are what has been preserving the documentation of resources that an individual uses on their way to success.

Whether one talks about an entrepreneur who is excelling in market acquisition, academia chimes in with its data and documentation and projections. An entrepreneur who has taken up organic farming -- has resources that have been developed by scientific experiments on how to maximise production by academic research on advanced farming techniques. Examples like these are beyond the ability of counting.

Ultimately, success is not a binary choice between a degree and its absence. It is a complex notion achieved from a combination of factors, including skills, vision, and a thirst for knowledge. While a university degree can provide a strong foundation, it is the individual’s drive, adaptability, and willingness to learn that truly pave the path to success.

Numerous individuals have successfully navigated both the academic and professional spheres, demonstrating that a degree can be a powerful tool for achieving one’s goals. For instance, we can talk about renowned Bangladeshi economist Dr Rehman Sobhan. He holds a PhD from Harvard University and has used his academic expertise to make significant contributions to the economic development of Bangladesh.

The key lies in striking a balance between the inherent value of academic knowledge and the importance of individual drive and initiative. While a university degree can equip individuals with valuable skills and knowledge, it is not a guarantee of success. It is the individual’s ability to leverage their acquired knowledge, adapt to changing circumstances, and continuously learn that ultimately determines their path. But a university surely helps create a strong foundation and a vast pool of knowledge that specialises and expertise in various disciplines.

Imagine a world where universities are not just gateways to specialised careers, but vibrant hubs of learning that equip individuals with both theoretical knowledge and practical skills. Or one may envision a society where entrepreneurship flourishes alongside academic excellence, where individuals can choose their paths without fear of judgment, and where the pursuit of knowledge, whether through formal education or self-directed learning, is celebrated.

In such a society, industries would benefit from a diverse pool of talent, equipped with both academic rigor and real-world adaptability. The economy would thrive on the innovation and problem-solving skills honed through a balanced approach to learning. And most importantly, individuals would be empowered to pursue their own unique paths to success, fueled by a thirst for knowledge and a deep understanding of both the world of books and the world around them.

Therefore, the true question is not whether a university degree is essential for success, but how a nation should cultivate a society that values both academic and real-world knowledge, nurturing a generation of individuals equipped to tackle the challenges of the future and weave their own unique stories of success.

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