I walked into my usual clothing store the other day and during the conversation with the clerk there, who I have known for a couple of years, we discussed how he was finishing his secondary education and – provided he make his grades – was headed off to University. He received an offer from Edinburgh, which is a pretty decent establishment.
At some stage I joked about how I hoped he was taking a subject that would lead to a decent career, and he sheepishly admitted that he was planning to read Psychology and Ancient Greek, and he later admitted that his parents were funding it. He didn’t know what he wanted to do and was apparently just taking a subject that he felt like, at that moment in time. What’s more he wasn’t concerned about his ability to monetize his later career. I pushed him on this and he said not to spoil his fun.
What’s changed in the last 15 years?
When I look back on the way I came to my degree, I’m not sure that it was any different. I applied to do Maths & French to 8 Universities using the system that was available at that time, and was lucky enough to receive 8 offers. By a twist of fate, I didn’t make the exact grades I needed to get into Cambridge and my college was over-subscribed so threw me into the inter-collegiate pool – a sort of no-mans land where budding Cambridge undergraduates sit, waiting to be fished out.
Literally a few hours later I had a call from Alan Mycroft, a brilliant and slightly eccentric computer science professor. He told me that he had looked at my application and wanted to take me, but into the Computer Science faculty because he didn’t believe I had the disposition to study Mathematics at Cambridge. I’m pretty certain he was right.
And I am very grateful to Alan and other amazing thinkers like Roger Needham and David Wheeler for having taken me in as a student randomly applying for courses and letting me do something that enabled me to become relevant.
The key difference back then was there were grants, and no tuition fees, plus the cost of living was insignificant. There were a handful of students that struggled economically because they were on a line between government grants and their parents earned enough to be disqualified but not enough to pay their offspring’s way. But those were the exceptions – the rest of us wallowed in thrifty delight for 3 years.
The problem today is that education costs big bucks, and it’s only going to get worse as the years progress. It will likely be a debt somewhere near £30-50,000 or $50-80,000 in the next few years and this is a frightening amount of money to have to pay back.
My organisation, like many others, will be taking graduates on this year and we want people who are commercially aware and have relevant educational experience. But most university courses fall into one of two categories.
The first is vocational technical courses. These have little value in the consulting world because someone who knows how to program an iPhone app or something has limited value. We need the universities to teach critical thinking, underlying industry concepts and business and social analysis. The vocational courses seem to turn out graduates very good at what they were taught to do, but limited in the way they cast their net.
The second is the traditional arts courses. These are popular with students because they are seen as cool and fun. The problem in Enterprise IT is that those students, in many cases, are technologically disadvantaged.
To illustrate this I talked to the clerk in my store about him applying for a graduate position in 3 years time. He is bright and articulate and well presented and I am confident that Edinburgh University will teach him critical thinking and social awareness. But he has zero aptitude to IT and no interest. It would be an uphill battle to teach him Enterprise IT; we don’t need graduates with degrees in IT but they need to be very proficient with operating computers by the time they arrive.
A call to action – become relevant
So this is a call to action to Universities and students alike.
Universities: Make your degrees relevant to organisations like mine. Breed us technical graduates that aren’t vocational and arts graduates with IT skills. We can make those students into great consultants.
Students: You will have to think very carefully about the courses you choose because you will have to pay back an enormous sum of money. If you vote with your feet and apply for courses that will make you relevant to a future career – be it consulting or whatever – then you will increase your chances of being able to pay back that debt some time before you retire.