Thursday, 18 August 2016

Been successful with your A-levels? What Universities ought to offer you but don't....

There are a number of problems facing bright A-level students. First of all, education is horrendously expensive. It's possible that the brightest students will have the most powerful crystal balls to look into the future and think what a debt of over £60k means when they are trying pay absurd mortgages, child care which is more that half the average salary, ever increasing transport costs, all while the student loan company will have the right to ramp-up interest rates with little anyone can do about it. All this against an economic backdrop of stagnant wages, employment insecurity and real difficulties in career progression.

Secondly, an undergraduate degree isn't enough. Undergraduate education has become an expensive extension of schooling and higher learning is on the retreat - both among the student body and amongst the institutional management. The business model of Universities has become about printing certificates in the same way that the business model of the pre-reformation Catholic church was printing indulgences. With 10% participation, a degree certificate marked you out. Now almost everyone's (ok, about 50%) got one, you'll need something else - masters? PhD? How much more?

So here's what you should do. It does not cost £9000 to teach an undergraduate student for a year, and part of what makes up the cost are institutional overheads - those grand buildings, the library, extortionate fees for publishers, the administration. That's not to mention the profiteering of property developers in turning cities into bijou student accommodations (and some of these developers are Universities - like this one: So find an option which charges the real cost. Online ought to be considerably cheaper (why isn't it?). £9000 could buy you a couple of personal tutors and someone to write your assignments for you (*joke*). But, you might worry, the important thing about university is the social aspect - going out and meeting people. Academics go out and meet people at conferences - they present papers, they increase their status by presenting their ideas. Why can't undergraduate students do this too? There are great opportunities like If you attended 5 international conferences a year, the total cost would be far less that £9000. Companies like Expedia or AirBnB could also participate in the making of packages for nomadic undergraduates.

The really important thing about education is status. A degree used to be a status symbol. Now it often invites the question "why didn't you use it? What are you doing working in Aldi?". But to be published, to present at conferences, to collaborate in international teams, to be entrepreneurial - all of these things increase status too. With a really cheap way of accrediting learning episodes into a degree, then your graduation from your own bespoke online degree will give you far more than all those hours stuck in deathly lecture theatres. You will have travelled. You will have published. You will have networked. And you will be employable.

Universities used to be the gatekeepers to powerful technologies. Now these technologies are everywhere and they are very cheap. You may learn more from a Raspberry Pi or an Arduino than you would have ever learnt in a computer lab. It's not difficult to hack together kit which would otherwise cost thousands (I love this vital signs kit for the Raspberry Pi -

Then, you might think, "what course do I study?" It's a question which is framed by the traditional university - and it's the wrong question. A better question is "What assessment framework do I want?" The best answer is "the one that gives you the greatest flexibility to do the things you are interested in - and change your mind". The worst answer is "the one that makes you do loads of stuff you are not interested in." It may be that you want to work or do an apprenticeship, and study your work or your apprenticeship. Why not? Or you want to write and publish poetry, and study your own journey. Again, why not?

Finally, a question for the more adventurous... "Do I need an institution involved in this at all?". That's an important question. The institutional degree works because it is trusted. If some other mechanism of establishing trust is available - like, for example, peer recognition, or perhaps in the future, Blockchain - then no, you don't need an institution - you can enhance your status with a portfolio of activities and be assured of that this will be trusted in the same way as a degree.

Whatever you choose, and whatever those in power tell you, £60k is a lot of money, and in most cases, it will not deliver flexibility, publication, status enhancement, higher qualifications, travel, entrepreneurship, international networks, or technological experimentation. Universities are too stiff to change. They have become rather like the Maginot line: too busy defending themselves from what they see as the most likely threat, only to miss the fact that the world and its students may eventually choose to bypass them.

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