The Alternative University

The Alternative University

 Sea of mortar boards

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.

Epcot Center

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, IdeoChannel 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?

7 Replies to “The Alternative University”

  1. Provoking thoughts. Stross blogged on Universities and got a lot of thoughtful comments:

    I bombed out after a year but have since picked up a “University certificate” with 36 CATS points in business studies and photography.

    I think the interesting university should cover a wide range of subject from useful maths, critical thinking, history, philosophy, cookery and so on. Give people a real boost.

    On the other hand, isn’t all we need to know now is how to use Google?

  2. At last – some fresh thinking! I like where you’re going with this Oli – and yes I agree 100% that what we have currently just isn’t working.

    One of the things that really gets my goat is the Goverment arguing that students should pay this vast sum (£9,000 per year) simply because that’s what it costs to run universities. ie You should pay X because that’s the sum we need.

    This logic is nonsense – the simply truth is that only a handful of degrees are actually WORTH that sum.

    I wrote about this in my recent blog post ‘HOle in uni funding is not students’ problem’

    So I agree that we need some new ideas on a cheaper, perhaps faster replacement for / alternative to university.

    However, I do feel strongly that before we do anything, we need to reach a consensus on what university is actually FOR.

    I wrote about this a few months ago for the Guardian, ‘Graduates – a problem in four parts’

    Is it about academic broadening of the mind? Training for work? A way to get a leg-up above those without a degree?

    At present, unis, politicians, employers and students all have very different ideas. Until we reach an agreement on this, I fear we’re going to keep going round in circles!

    Perhaps once we know what it’s FOR, it will become clearer who should be picking up the bill for it…

  3. 50% of young people studying for an academic degree is nuts. There is no way that 50% of jobs provide anything like the opportunity to pay back £30k in a reasonable time span.

    Oli, as a (successful) uni dropout myself – I wholeheartedly agree.

    And, as an employer, hiring software engineers, it’s well worth mentioning that I care less about a CompSci or SoftEng degree, and more about passion and ability to learn.
    Given the choice of a 21 year old with 1 years study and 2 years provable practical experience, actually building things for real stakeholders, and a graduate who needs to unlearn stuff to become useful, and thus expects some kind of “graduate programme”, to me it’s a no brainer. The trouble I face is that in a large organisation, HR and Recruitment Agencies get in the way, and their first CV sift discards folk without letters after their name. Which does self starters – the type I really want, and enjoy to work with, a massive disservice.

    University is not a human right. University should not be about increasing employability (apart than specific, specialized things such as medicine) , but more about increasing world knowledge by encouraging the very brightest of our students, those motivated toward pure research, to take academia as far as possible.

    It has become a river that must be crossed to move into professional life. Unfortunately this river is now polluted with the disease of debt; this saddens me. 100 years ago, when the world was young, UK university degrees were considered exclusive and special. Now they are a burden on individuals, the state, and devalued often to pointlessness.

  4. Interesting post.
    I have had discussions with colleagues about shorter degrees when I’ve worked in academia. I’ve also had debates over the years about the value of specific vocational degrees.

    I think that part of the challenge of doing a degree is simply pushing through the part when it starts to feel tedious until one has achieved the original aim of obtaining the degree. I’m sure that experience has helped many people later to push through barriers and difficulties during projects that might not have completed otherwise.

    There are, of course, qualifications other than degrees and which have strongly practical and vocational. See:

    Some degree courses are very practical. Some of those are the ones that may disappear. Most degrees are not designed to teach people to do a specific job – nor should they be. They do or should teach useful skills, however. I’ve never been amused at having to teach graduates the basics of photocopying a multi-page stapled document (just as well most docs are in digital form now) or of how to organise information for dissemination and for storage and easy retrieval (hard copy or digital).

    The degree courses that involve time working in the relevant business usually seem to be effective for many more vocational degrees, but take 4 years.

    I’d like to see more going into making distance learning (via the Web/networked resources) easier and more common, and more done (including but not just some financial support) for part-time degrees. They also need to open out more to education continuing through one’s lifetime. The current system still harks back to a world in which one learnt one’s trade/profession early in life and then stayed in that profession or trade until retirement. Life ceased to be like that at least 20 years ago. We need to be able to learn new skills & get new qualifications at intervals, and whilst continuing to work.

    It’s time we re-thought further and higher education and debated properly what is required and only after that talk how it could be funded.

  5. A lot of interesting points which echo my own thoughts.

    A university education is not a right. Government targets are counterproductive in that they devalue the degree. Specialist areas such as medicine, law etc are an exception to this – they hold great value and actually lead somewhere.

    Something needs to change to reflect the changing needs of employers and industry, so we are educating people for the real world in which we live. Let’s hope we move with the times and by the time my 4 year old needs to make a decision, there will be a real alternative if he chooses not to study for a profession.

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