Deciding on the future: Should you go to university or start a business?

Tom Honey decided to start his own business after college, while Jen Law went down the traditional university route. Both have told us their stories.
Tom Honey decided to start his own business after college, while Jen Law went down the traditional university route. Both have told us their stories.

Students looking to start university undergraduate courses next year have to make their applications by January 15 – but what if it’s not the right option? We spoke to two North Devon people about their experiences.

A new report by the National Audit Office has found only 32 per cent of higher education students felt their course offered value for money.

The report says prospective students are in a ‘potentially vulnerable position’ when deciding whether to enter higher education and take on a student loan, or follow another path.

Graduates earn, on average, 42 per cent more than non-graduates across the UK, but the average student debt, for a three-year course, on graduation is £50,000.

The Gazette spoke to two North Devon people who took very different career paths – one who took the university route, and one who started their own business – to hear their thoughts.

Tom Honey - started a business

Tom Honey. Tom Honey.

Tom Honey, 21, from Croyde, always knew university wasn’t the right choice for him.

At the age of 15, the young entrepreneur took £100 from his savings and used it to buy ice-cream from a local farm, selling it on the beach at Lee Bay.

“When I started out I made around £60 a week, but then by the end of the summer I was making around £300 a week, which was a lot at that age,” said Tom.

The following summer, Tom invested his earnings in a wood-fired pizza oven, built his own wooden benches, and started Stoned as a pop-up at local campsites.

He spent three years growing the business, opening his first shop in Braunton in 2016 with the help of two start-up loans, and hopes in the future to franchise the brand.

“I did well at school but I was selling ice-cream and then pizzas while doing my GCSEs and A Levels and that’s what motivated me,” said Tom.

“I never wanted to go to university; I couldn’t see that being a way of going forward and having a future in the North Devon area.”

Instead, Tom managed to get funding from Virgin and NatWest start-up loans, something he said he thought was going to be impossible.

“That’s not to say anyone can come up with an idea and just ask for money for it; we had three years of trading behind us and had a really sound pitch,” said Tom.

“I would advise people to start small, with their own money. You’ve got to show you know your audience and you’ve done your market research.”

Tom said the entrepreneurial route could be quite isolating at times, as he had no-one to guide him who had been through the process of opening a business before.

And he advises anyone unsure on whether to go to university or to start their own business to take a year out and not rush their decision.

“Once you go down either route there’s no going back; once you’ve got two loans you can’t just back out, so take your time to explore your options,” said Tom.

“A lot of young people come to me and say they’re thinking about doing their own business venture, or older people who wish they had done it before they had the responsibility of a mortgage and family.”

Jen Law - went to University

Jen Law. Jen Law.

Jen Law, 33, from Bideford, always had a good idea she wanted a career as a solicitor, and for her, the university route was a natural choice.

“I started with my A-Levels in sixth form at Grenville College and then went on to do a law degree at Cardiff University,” she said.

“After I graduated I took a year out to gain some experience and make sure I was really interested, and I was lucky to be made an offer by Slee Blackwell.

“I went to Plymouth to do my year-long Legal Practice Course (LPC) and started working for Slee Blackwell in September 2008.

“I loved university and I loved the social side, meeting lots of people, making new friends and living away from home for the first time.

“But I love North Devon; I never wanted to move away and I was incredibly lucky to receive an offer and to be able to live and work here.”

Jen practises litigation in criminal and family proceedings, and said it can often be a rewarding job, especially supporting clients through a difficult process.

She has long-term ambitions to become a partner at her firm and said the academic side of a degree is great, but nothing beats the experience you gain on the job.

Jen urged anyone who is unsure about their choices to try and get some experience before committing to a potentially large student debt.

“If it’s possible and you’ve got some idea of what you want to do, try and shadow someone in that job, or ask them about their career,” she said.

And Jen said you shouldn’t be scared of making a wrong decision, or changing your mind if something is not for you.

“I have friends who dropped out of university but now love what they’re doing after taking a completely different path,” she said.

“If you’re at university and you think something might not be for you, don’t be afraid to speak to a tutor or seek support.

“It’s the same as when people come to see me as a solicitor – trust that person who knows more about the system than you do and let them 
help you.”

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