Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 15 November 2019

Meet the UAE high achievers who made the grade without a university degree

On A-level results day, UAE residents tell of how they overcame the 'stigma' of missing out on higher education to find success

Rochelle Milton soon realised university wasn't for her and quickly found success in the workplace. Reem Mohammed/The National
Rochelle Milton soon realised university wasn't for her and quickly found success in the workplace. Reem Mohammed/The National

Thousands of pupils across the UAE have their sights set on university after receiving their A-level results on Thursday.

But what happens when university life doesn’t work out as expected or you prefer to get straight on the career ladder?

Residents who left higher education early without a degree shared their stories with The National.

For Sarah Dyson, a software consultant in Dubai, there are no regrets over her decision to decline a place at a UK university.

“I was heavily pushed in to applying for university by my school,” said Ms Dyson.

When they found out I didn’t have a university degree they dropped my salary offer by Dh5,000

Sarah Dyson

“One teacher even said ‘I don’t care what you study, just go’.

“The school’s agenda was quite obvious.

“They wanted to brag about the high percentage of its pupils that transitioned into university.”

Ms Dyson received her A level results in the UK in 2012 and secured good grades in psychology, sociology and economics. She accepted an offer to study a business management degree at Newcastle University shortly after.

“I was never sold on the prospect of university, but friends were going so it seemed like the right thing to do,” she said. After getting her student loan set up, doubt crept in again.

Ultimately, Ms Dyson rejected her university offer and took an entry level position at a company installing financial software. She was 18.

“There was a big stigma attached to not going to university,” she said. But after one year of work experience, Ms Dyson was offered three different jobs.

In 2018, she moved to the UAE. With a handful of professional qualifications and certifications in-hand after years of work, she landed a job as a software consultant with a technology firm.

But the lack of a degree did turn one potential employer off.

“Initially I got a job offer with a well-known corporate firm.

“When they found out I didn’t have a university degree they dropped my salary offer by Dh5,000.”

Candidates with the best qualifications will always find a job more easily than those without, said Louise Vine, managing director of Inspire Selection, a recruitment agency in Dubai.

“Due to the high number of applications for each vacancy advertised, people without a degree may be screened out very early in the process, purely because of the need to filter applicants.

“On some job websites, artificial intelligence screens you out of the process if you do not tick the ‘degree educated’ box.”

Rochelle Milton, who works for a marketing agency in Dubai, quit university to work full-time at the end of her first year in 2015.

“I didn’t do great in my A levels so was forced to switch my course choice from economics to fashion marketing.

“I opted to do a creative and strategy-focused degree at Northampton University as I thrived in subjects like that.”

After renting private student accommodation, Ms Milton had to supplement her income and took on three part time jobs while studying.

“I enjoyed work and became less interested in university," she said.

“I was learning more on the job about marketing than I was in my university lectures. University just filled me with anxiety.

“I was suffering from depression and realised I only enrolled because it was the traditional route most A-level pupils went down.

For many pupils, a university education is the obvious choice after A level success, but it it isn't the only route available. Reem Mohammed/The National
For many pupils, a university education is the obvious choice after A level success, but it it isn't the only route available. Reem Mohammed/The National

“It just wasn’t for me.”

Milton went from being a part-time mobile salesperson to a full-time supervisor. In less than a year, at the age of 21, she became the youngest store manager in her company.

Now working in a management role in Dubai, Ms Milton said if you have the right attitude and motivation for a job, opportunities will come your way.

“You have to work harder to prove yourself if you don’t have a degree, but it worked out well for me.”

Recruitment trends in the UAE suggest having a degree is advantageous for several reasons when applying for a job.

We want candidates to show attitude and passion. I have taken on so many people without a degree

HR consultant Rohini Bhalla

However, Ms Vine said many employers still list ‘relevant degree required’ without necessarily considering whether it is genuinely a requirement to do the job properly.

“We had one candidate who was interviewing for a head of sales role and reached the third interview.

“He was eventually rejected for the position because one of the hiring managers discovered he did not have a degree.”

But if a candidate does not have a degree, not all hope is lost.

HR consultant Rohini Bhalla said if an A-level pupil does not go to university, it does not make them unemployable.

“We want candidates to show attitude and passion. I have taken on so many people without a degree.

“A degree is looked on more favourably by employers in the UAE but, if you don’t have one, be more astute when applying for a job."

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Students in UAE find out their A-level results

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While it is difficult to enter certain professions without a degree, such as medical or legal fields, personality and ability to persuade others is often more important for other jobs, like business development roles.

“By starting at entry level in your desired industry, doing administration or an assistant job, you can still prove yourself whilst in the role and progress that way,” Ms Vine said.

Updated: August 26, 2019 12:10 PM

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