By James Taylor Tuesday, 21 December 2010

Branson says Brits don't need no education

Richard Branson apparently reckons British entrepreneurs are 'over-educated'. We may soon found out whether he's right...

That’s according to a US diplomatic cable released via Wikileaks, in which American ambassador Clark Randt detailed Branson’s take on a negative assessment of British business made by the Chinese.  

At an event titled ‘What makes a good entrepreneur?’ the Chinese criticised British entrepreneurs for being ‘overeducated, too conservative, lacking passion for entrepreneurship and too afraid of failure’. According to Randt, Branson ‘agreed that British entrepreneurs are over-educated and that schooling does not prepare one for entering the business world’.

As leaked revelations go, a negative school report from el Beardo is hardly as juicy as the Libyan government attacking the 'Zionist' M&S. But it still raises an interesting issue – especially when soaring tuition fees might make some people think twice about heading down the university route.

Branson is one of those oft-quoted inspirational examples of someone making a success of themselves the other way; a dyslexic who struggled to concentrate in class, he left school at 15 to run his own business while his mates were still studying. It’s also true many other famous entrepreneurs failed to complete a formal education: Steve Jobs, Bill Gates, Warren Buffett, Simon Cowell and Mark Zuckerberg, to name but a few. And he almost certainly has a point that schooling is no substiture for real-life experience when it comes to business.

So should we be encouraging our kids to ditch the books and rush out to start a widget factory? Not necessarily. For a start, it's worth remembering that for all the world-beating successful entrepreneurs who didn't finish university, there are lots of others who did - and lots of wannabe entrepreneurs who opted out of education and then lived to regret it when their business failed to become the next Virgin, or Apple, or Microsoft. And while Branson may have learned his trade in the 'school of life', others will enjoy great benefits from formal education - not least, these days, in terms of access to the latest technology and networking opportunities. There are all sorts of routes to the top for entrepreneurs; the key is try and nurture as many of them as possible.

What's also an interesting question, though, is whether entrepreneurship itself can be taught. Would Branson have been a success whichever route he took, because of something intrinsic to his character? And if so, is it possible to work out what that something is, isolate it, and teach it to others? Lots of courses at universities are trying to do just that - an example of formal education trying to supply the spark that, to the likes of Branson, came naturally. But can the characteristics that make a good entrepreneur - an appetite for risk, an ability to embrace uncertainty, and so on - really be taught?

These are tough times to start a business, and that's hardly likely to assuage the fear of failure that puts off many would-be entrepreneurs. Although we suppose that if rising fees do put more people off formal education, we may soon see exactly how much natural passion for entrepreneurship there is among the nation's yoof.

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