Back in 1997, I spent a massively enjoyable 6 months working at Walt Disney World, in Florida. I had just completed my A-Levels and this was a chance to spend part of a gap year earning some money, meeting some amazing people and working for an organisation which I had always admired. The experience culminated with a graduation ceremony from the Disney University, complete with gown and, brace yourself, mortar board adorned with a rather fetching pair of ears…
I quite literally have a Mickey Mouse Degree.
After Disney, I went on to drop out of not one but two British universities, first in Edinburgh, then in Leeds. So I have a couple of views on the subject. When someone asks me whether they should bother going to uni, you would think that I would have a speedy and negative response. I don’t. You see, the time I spent there was incredibly enjoyable. It was where I met life-long friends. It was where I developed some of my strongest passions, from the radio show I presented to the musical I produced. For me, university was where I decided that I wanted to ‘start things’ for a living. It was where I started my first company. Would I have been better off heading straight into a job? I don’t think so. My reflection then is a bit odd. Yes, I’d go again. Yes, I’d drop out again. Sadly, not very helpful as a piece of advice.
Of course, today the calculations involved are rather different. Recent proposals by Lord Browne could see students paying £7,000 per year to attend university. They would start repaying that when they begin earning £21,000 a year (the current amount is £15,000). On average, students would graduate with £30,000 of debt.
I don’t want to get into the rights and wrongs of tuition fees and payments. Frankly, I don’t know enough about the subject. Instead, I want to make a more basic point;
University is in serious need of a re-design. For many people, it borders on being a complete waste of time. Yes, I know that if you have decided upon a particular path (dentistry for example) then it works very well. For millions though, it’s too expensive, it takes too long and the experience just isn’t good enough to justify the investment of time and money. You leave having learned very little of any use in the outside world, in no fit shape to hit the ground running. So I suggest that somebody invents an alternative. This would be a shorter, cheaper, more valuable experience. Here are a couple of ideas;
- It lasts one year, not three.
- It costs the student closer to £3,000 for a year’s programme. The rest might be co-sponsored.
- You meet fantastic people. Not just randomly, at the bar, but in a more structured, thoughtful way.
- You learn things. But not just facts and figures. You learn how to DO things.
- It’s not all ‘practical’. There are seminars where you can discuss important topics.
- It has the backing of some named employers, who help to design the experience.
Imagine designing and testing something which sat between a three year degree and going straight out to work. Something cheaper, better, faster. The Alternative University. Praised by Government for being daring. Supported by business because it helped develop qualities they deem valuable. Helped by experts (from philosophers to historians) because it delivered, in punchy sessions, stuff that matters. Most of all, enjoyed and valued (at the time AND with hindsight) by students for being enjoyable, valuable and effective. Effective at helping them to clarify what they are good at, what they might want to experience in life and how they might make their first moves. Valuable because it left them feeling good about themselves and the world, and connected them with interesting people.
Target for the first year’s national intake; 1,000.
One way to do this would be for a couple of respected universities to co-create a one year course in something suitably provocative; Interesting Studies for example. Involve The Week, Ideo, Channel 4. Make it massively desirable to get on, so much so that the surrounding PR would make its graduates stand out.
I would enrol for a year of Interesting Studies. And with a little bit of persuasion, I think I’d stay the course. Would you?