#7 Why University is a Waste of Time and Money (for Most People) and How Tech/Startups Can Help (1)

The 1st blog covering my thoughts on why university is a waste of time for most people and how I believe tech can help to shape the future of the education system + startups catalysing change for good

Before I dive into this blog… I want to start by saying how much I enjoyed my university experience, how fortunate I am to have met the amazing people I now call friends and that at the time (based upon my knowledge when I left school) choosing the University of Bath was probably the best decision for me.

That being said, hindsight is an amazing thing, and I wanted to cover this topic not only to highlight the parts of the higher education system that are broken but also to present my opinion on how tech and startups are going to catalyse change in the right direction. Furthermore, COVID has rocked the boat of universities in the past 5-months, and I think that many people are starting to realise that the Government and universities handling of grades, students and classifications is broken.

This blog is 1 of 2, first covering why I believe uni is a waste of time for most people and then blog 2 of 2 will cover how I believe this space is going to develop and what startups/ideas can catalyse change for the better! Blog number one sets the context for what will follow (which is probably more relevant to my readers).

If this sounds interesting, or you like the sound of the intentions of 2ND CITY VC, then feel free to subscribe to the newsletter version using the link below! And be sure to like and leave a comment!

Universities Are Broken

Below, I am going to present the seven main reasons why I believe universities are broken and why there are so many options for most people. When I say most people, I mean those not completely set on going into technical, high-level professionals such as medicine, engineering, dentistry etc. or those who want to go into research. These people will always need a degree.

But for the rest, who aspire to go into marketing, surveying, accounting, business, sales etc. I would argue that experience, and interpersonal skills are what’s going to make you successful, and university isn’t the most efficient way to get this. In my mind, the ultimate purpose of a university is to prepare you for the real world, lead innovation and to get a job off the back of your degree, but the following seven things are what I believe makes it the wrong choice for many young people, especially those looking to go into the above career paths.

Internet

The internet has commoditised knowledge; you can virtually learn anything you want using Google as long as you have access to the internet (90% of households now have access to the internet in the UK - Statista). Online learning platforms such as Udemy, Coursera and LinkedIn Learning have a variety of free and paid courses that cover every topic imaginable in a much more flexible way than universities offer.
In the UK, when you pick a degree, you are pretty much stuck on that course (unless you switch early enough or drop out (you still have to pay fees if you do this)) for the whole 3-4 years. With the internet, you can easily change course and switch as you learn, gain experience and mature. You change as you grow, so why can’t your education? In the US you can even minor, double major and pick courses that interest you once you’re in the university (I’m sure the system has its flaws like many things in America) which seems a lot more suited to students who have to make a choice when they’re 17-18 on what they want to do.

Furthermore, you have access to everything you could ever need to know on your phone, which is more powerful than the computers that got us onto the moon. Why do we need to remember equations or pointless facts when we can find everything we need from our phone?

A typical response to this point is that universities provide contact time with lecturers and tutors where you can ask questions and get valuable insight, which you don’t get through online learning. Here are my three responses to that:

  • Most students don’t ask questions or utilise contact time: From mine and others experience, most students miss tutorials, lectures and seminars and even if they don’t, many don’t feel comfortable to ask questions.
    I often got messaged or pulled aside by a peer after a lecture to thank me for asking a question as they were too shy or embarrassed to ask…

  • A lot of tutors are box ticks: It’s common knowledge at uni that tutors are more of a box tick than an actual support system that you can rely on. My 2nd-3rd year tutor was fantastic, but my peers were usually surprised by how useful he was compared to theirs and others. From what I have seen across other universities, tutors will go through the motions unless they think/know a students mental health is at risk because there is no real incentive for them to do so; it shouldn’t take it to get to this point for action to be made! Tutors shouldn’t just be there to stop something bad from happening, they should be actively incentivised to boost student satisfaction and grades.
    I do believe that students are also the problem here, as they don’t fully utilise the tutor system available which in turn makes it less effective… but this is causality in my opinion; if students genuinely got a benefit from their tutors, they would utilise the system more.
    If anyone has survey data that disproves this point, please fire it my way!

  • COVID has thrown this in the air: It is likely most universities are going to have very little or no contact time with students in the next and following academic year due to COVID. This means that the support you have access to (in terms of time and medium) is probably on par with what you can get on many online courses provided through the above platforms.

People

One of the biggest things I hear about why university is amazing is because of the people you meet… and I agree that the people you meet there are lifechanging and you will make friends for life. However, amazing people are not exclusively found at universities; in my experience, they can be found anywhere if you’re looking in the right places.

In the past year, working out of co-working spaces, attending networking events and travelling abroad has put me in contact with so many unique, inspiring and like-minded people, without putting me in £43,000 debt.

If one of the main reasons you’re going to university is to make friends, then I recommend you look elsewhere as you can spend a fraction of the cost of meeting people all over the world. Of course, I know it doesn’t work like that in reality as you don’t just have that money available to meet people elsewhere, but my point is more that there are like-minded people everywhere if you look hard enough.

One thing that I believe universities have, which provides fantastic value is the societies and clubs formed within them. At Bath, I got involved with Bath Entrepreneurs Society and wished I had utilised the Finance Society more; these groups are filled with like-minded students that are priceless to have in your network. However, there are (and are now even more with COVID) groups formed across the UK and World that provide the same kind of value and like-minded network that university societies do. These groups might not have people the same age as you, but maybe it’s more beneficial to have contacts in positions and industries that you one day aspire to be in.

Skills > Knowledge

I believe that society is going through a change in many industries, where people are starting to realise that being able to work and thrive within a team using skills, is much better than bringing a load of book-learnt knowledge and credentials to the table. Universities and the education system are based upon decades-old curriculums and ways of thinking, but the workplace and society have moved on while the system has remained stagnant.

I realised this when I completed a placement year during my 3rd year at university; I used none of the technical knowledge that I had gained during my first two years, and it was clear that not many people do. What I did use and had to develop massively across the year was my soft and interpersonal skills, as these were what made the difference between an employee at the firm that got pigeon-holed/underutilised and one that thrived.

Many people cruise through university and the education system without completing any meaningful extra-curricula activities (beyond drinking and the occasional course football match) and come out with a decent grade because they are trained at being able to do well in exams (basically memory tests). The real world is not like this, and a piece of paper isn’t going to get you through life in the workplace; not now employers have a global pool of remote talent to pick from.

Length of Time

From my experience, and many of my peers, 3-year university degrees could be halved (or at least reduced to 2-years). When you compare many university degree weekly time demands, they are less than half of an average 40-hour workweek and have much less “individual learning” than is suggested by the department.

For example, my engineering degree in years 1-2 was ~10 hours per week contact time with ~15 hours of individual learning outside of lectures. This 25 hours per week is a fraction of the 40+ hour work weeks that many professionals work in their fulltime jobs. This time demand, in my opinion, breeds complacency and laziness within students, which poorly prepares them for the real-world.

If degrees were efficiently delivered online, more structured and had snappier deadlines, I wholeheartedly believe that they could be reduced in duration. Universities would never invest to make their system more efficient, however, as they would miss out on an extra year’s tuition fees. For institutions that claim to be innovative and at the forefront of development/preparing young people for work, it’s pretty clear to see that they’re thriving off their inefficiencies.

I understand this massively varies on a course-by-course basis, and that many people wouldn’t want to have longer university weeks than they already have. Still, I think it is clear that the system isn’t efficient and plays in the universities favour through more tuition fees and less organisational stress on their behalf.

Cost

My university degree has clocked up around £43,000 debt for three years of fulltime tuition and a placement year (yes I had to pay the uni to work for a non-affiliated company). If you paid any other organisation or company this sort of money, you would expect much higher quality and standard of service.

What I found frustrating is to the university, you are just a number through the door or a “bum on a seat”, and this knocks the hard work of many lecturers who genuinely care about your personal and professional development. Lecturers and university employees who want to provide maximal value are often brought down by the system and those who are at the institution to research, which in turn reduces the efficiency and effectiveness of course delivery.

If you paid that sort of money to a library, would you be happy if you could never get a seat? If you spent that sort of cash to Udemy and they couldn’t provide you with lectures/course content due to strikes, would you be happy? Or if you completed work for a company and didn’t get specific 1-on-1 feedback from your boss, would you be happy or satisfied that your development is being supported? No, no and no; you would either demand a refund or complain until your needs were satisfied. So why are universities so untouchable? Institutional incompetency in many cases.

The Prestige

This is a great point and was one of the reasons I went to university. Society puts prestige on having a well-renowned university on your CV, and I can remember choosing Bath partly because it was ranked 2nd in the country for civil engineering and it being consistently ranked as a top 10 university. It is certainly true that recruiters filter by university, only recruiting from top universities because they have the “best talent” and that’s what top firms want.

What I would say to this is that in the past there have been plenty of things that people have done because it brings prestige and makes them look good in front of others. Does this mean it is the best option? Or is it just the most travelled route?
As with everything, trends have a sell-by-date, and in my opinion with more than half of young people going to uni, the prestige of going to university has been massively devalued and will continue to hold less weight in the future.

A huge part of people thinking this way comes from their parents’ insecurities. Children feel immense pressure from their parents to go to highly ranked/red brick universities because they can either brag to their friends or feel accomplished that they gave their children the opportunities they didn’t have access to. Let’s be honest, parents love being able to say “X just got into (insert Russel Group Uni)” to their friends and this is a huge driving factor to why they nudge their children in a direction.

Need convincing more? Watch the below video (then watch some more of Gary’s videos on this topic.

Slow Moving Organisations

Considering universities are at the forefront of international development and innovation, they are incredibly slow. For anything meaningful to be pushed through, it takes a considerable amount of time and disruption to kickstart things.
Just look at the strikes; over two months of action and universities still aren’t giving lecturers the working condition and pay they deserve. Now I’m not an expert on this topic, but why does it take so much disruption for universities to take notice? And even then, there has been nothing said about the value, contact time and disruption caused to students.

Why? Because universities can get away with whatever they want as long as they box tick and look like they’re helping students through last-ditch mental health initiatives or a new water fountain through the Students Union.

From what I have observed, academics stick together and back each other up when something goes wrong (this in itself isn’t a bad thing). But because the university system and structure are broken, this can sometimes lead to things being swept under the carpet; often at the expense of students’ mental health and experience.

I have seen examples of this throughout my university career, and most recently I had to step in to help a friend (not a University of Bath student) who was being screwed over by her uni. To check out this story, please read this recent LinkedIn post.

Summary

Hopefully, the above has given a convincing and comprehensive explanation of why I believe the UK university system is broken. I could have gone on much longer, but wanted to keep it as concise as possible!

Make sure you’re subscribed so that you don’t miss out on part 2 of this blog where I discuss the startups and initiatives that are in place to help catalyse change in the education system for the better.

Disagree with me? I am open to discuss any of the above points and be proved wrong on all of them if necessary, so please leave a comment, drop me a message on LinkedIn or book in a call using my Calendly link so I can listen to your point!

Final Words

I can imagine that this blog might seem a little bit bitter or that I’m digging out my university, but as I said above, my time at the University of Bath was amazing and the majority of the academics were fantastically supportive. If you’re thinking about going to UoB for careers that genuinely reacquire a degree, then it’s a great institution to go to.

I hope my point is clear that it is the system and leadership that is broken, and university doesn’t make sense for MOST people. It is not the responsibility of an individual or group of lecturers to make things right; things have to come from the top! This blog shouldn’t be seen as controversial; for me it’s just the start of an interesting conversation about the experience and observation of 100s of students I’ve spoken to.

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