When will Graduates learn to monetize their education?

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.

Graduate Intake

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.

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10 Responses to When will Graduates learn to monetize their education?

  1. Pingback: DJ’s Weblog » Blog Archive » Danger! Graduate Conveyor-belt!

  2. DJ Adams says:

    Very enjoyable and thought-provoking piece. I started writing a response here but thought it warranted a blog post of its own: http://www.pipetree.com/qmacro/blog/2011/05/danger-graduate-conveyor-belt/

    Kind regards from the library

  3. BoobBoo says:

    As someone who was unsure of what degree to do I can sympathise with your pre-university friend and find it funny that we talk so much about young people growing up so fast and yet we have seen so many examples of people we know sherking this most adult of responsibilities – taking control of your own destiny, the choice of university course defines much of your career and adult life.
    Is it a case of “I want to be treated like an adult but only want the responsibilities I choose!”
    As a technical graduate of Software engineering, my two favourite modules were Distributed Systems (hence SAP) and Law&Ethics. Ethics was my favourite as we had heated debates about privacy, compliance, technology law – it taught me critical thinking and started me researching philosophy, hopefully rounding out my technical focus.
    A big piece of the puzzle is that there is little work done to relate what you do at university to potential careers – how many companies actually get the opportunity to go into universities and tell students what they’ll actually spend their time doing and what they are looking for in those students.
    I did a placement year to get commercial experience, which was an amazing experience. What if every student had to do a placement year, no matter what their degree was – would that provide the incentive to monetise their skills/degree. The search for those who do not have the skills might provide a wake up call before they are out in the bad world for real.

  4. Thorsten Franz says:

    I have always believed that the best way to make a career is to pursue your interests and do that which you can do with the utmost passion. From passion follows excellence, and from excellence follows success. So if a young person’s interests lite in psychology, or cultural history, or horse-breeding, I believe this is what they should set out to do. If they keep an open mind, try to learn as much as they can, and watch out for opportunities, the sky is the limit.

  5. Steve Rumsby says:

    I’m with Thorsten on this one. Find what you love and pursue it. If you love it you’ll be motivated to do it well. Planning your education around an assumed career path is unlikely to lead you to something you love. Anyway, who heads to university intending to be an IT consultant:-) This is why I think the current mechanism for funding Higher Education is just wrong. It is making students think of a career up front, and that’s too soon to be making the decision. Make university subjects teach the analytical skills you require, arts courses included. I know many arts students who’ve ended up making good IT analysts. Nobody who has “IT consultant” in mind as a career is going to study classics at university, for example, and yet in many ways classics is good preparation for that career path!

    My oldest child (14) has just gone through the process of choosing options for her GCSE years at school. It was really interesting to talk with her about what she enjoys and what she might like to be doing in the years to come. As her education continues, I really hope she is able to just do what she enjoys doing and see where it leads. Her interests are currently quite diverse so I have no idea where that will be and nether does she. Discovery is part of the fun of the journey!

  6. Kevin Oliver says:

    Not sure I agree with much of this.

    Life is for living not for monitising (what a hideous word). If someone looked at the amount University will cost them (or their parents) they would not go there in the first place as 3 or 4 years without earning is very rarely recovered by improved earning prospects. Do something you are interested in and you are far more likely to do well. Passing a degree shows you are capable of learning (and using that knowledge) to a specific level – no more, no less. Sandwich years show you are capable of surviving employed life.

    If businesses want specifically qualified entrants then I would argue that it is beholden on them to create or procure their own not to expect an education system to fund them.

  7. PaulTom says:

    I’m going to partly agree with Chris, Steve and Thorsten. I grew up with computers (both my parents were in IT) and they were my passion. So when it came to university I did a computer science degree. What the degree offers and teaches though I think is very important, and differs between courses. As you say, some courses are very hands on. Others are very theoretical. I think a combination of both is very important. I was lucky that part of my course was doing an assignment as a project, with nominated roles (e.g. project manager, test manager, developer etc), similar to real life projects. Perhaps this gave me a taste for project roles.
    As far as I can remember, my course did not teach me the critical thinking, but I believe that these can be learnt, as I do challenge clients and do the critical thinking now.
    The other side is I was lucky enough to do a placement. This was for a SAP consultancy where I started on the IT helpdesk and finished doing SAP Basis. So for me it helped to guide me into something I found I liked, without being a permanent decision for the next few years – i.e. if I didn’t like the role, I would know it is something I do not want to do.
    The placement year was a great experience for me and I would recommend it to anyone who has the opportunity. It teaches you an awful lot about working life very quickly. For example how team dynamics work, which you do not learn at university.

    So overall, study / follow what you are passionate for – if not you are unlikely to enjoy it.
    Secondly, do a years placement if possible. It allows you to realise what life is like in the working world and relate your university studies to it.


  8. Robert Whittaker says:

    I’m obviously having an interesting day and have time to respond to your blogs.

    When I went to university I had the thoughts you have made in your blog and picked a subject I thought I’d enjoy, be good at and leave me with a career at the end of it all. So I ended up reading civil engineering.
    The problem is, with lots of these courses, you don’t actually know what they’re going to be like, you might end up doing something that you’re not suited to. Unless you want to change courses a few times to find a fit you stick with what you’re doing and get on with it.

    Most courses do teach skills that suitable to the work place, the best consultant/analyst I ever came across has a degree in History (With IT). The same skills are required, you just need to workout how to apply them to the circumstances you find yourself in.

    I’d say now that everything turned out well, I fell in to a job I like and my life has developed as I’d wanted and if I’d chosen something else my path through life would have been different. But I beleive just as successful and fulfilling. But I wish I’d followed my passion and something I knew I liked. I should have done physics!

  9. Jon Reed says:

    I’ve been meaning to comment on this post forever because it stoked the fires of ideas that I became obsessed enough to write a book about a few years ago. The problem I see between the “follow your passions” view and the “be practical and monetize” view is that they are perceived as being in direct opposition to each other, when in fact one can inform and guide the other. I think schools could help students follow their “passions” while also equipping them with a much better understanding of how the fields they aspire to work and how to go about “monetizing” those passions, finding your audience, etc.

    The idea that “follow your passions” is good enough career advice in and of itself is deeply flawed. In that case it depends on your field. For an athlete to “follow their passions” only works if they are elite enough in talent and dedication to reach the professional level. Otherwise they may have to seriously regroup. “Follow your passion” works great if you aspire to be a lawyer or even a programmer but as a musician it’s a much more complicated proposition. I have known musicians who have followed only their passion for music and have found themselves in some really tough spots in life – without marketable skills.

    Not all of our passions are marketable nor are they meant to be. And even those that are marketable can benefit from a clearer understanding of where the demand is within our particular fields. Sometimes we need a “dual approach” of using one set of skills as a trade while we finance the developing passion that needs more time to nurture. My (ahem) passion for the SAP field for example has served my career much better than my passion for music journalism, which has proven rewarding but hardly a stable professional path.

    And yes, I do think that colleges can play a role in helping aspiring graduates to not only follow their passions but better understand the tactics that are needed to get from point a to point b. I went to a college (Hampshire) that was a great education in “following my passion'” (all of my studies were self-directed) but after graduating I had to learn on my own how to translate those passions (writing/journalism for one) into a career path. I also had to unlearn a lot of anti-business sentiment I picked up on in my college environment that went counter to better ideas I have now adopted, that there is nothing to be ashamed of in seeking good compensation for good works. Frankly I wasted a long time getting rid of my misconceptions and figuring out the approaches that allow one to turn a passion into a trade you can rely on financially as well as creatively. When I get a chance to talk with students on this themes and present my ideas, they are always well received. Students crave far more about this topic than they get. They are often surprised when I argue that there is not some huge divide between artists and businesspeople – only things we need to learn from each other.

    – Jon

  10. steverumsby says:

    @jon You are of course right that the two approaches can be, and probably should be, complementary. My starting point is that you are going to be motivated to work hard to get good at something you are passionate about, and that you are unlikely to do that for something you are not. I believe it is also true that you can’t really predict what you are going to be passionate about – your passions will develop as you learn more about the world. That means you should have as broad an education as you can, and that specialising early is a mistake. Unless you really do have a well defined passion early in life. Such a broad education sets you up well for a passion that doesn’t deliver well financially:-)

    At the end of the day we are all motivated by different things, but if we are really honest for most of us money isn’t at the top of the list. It helps for sure, but if you are doing what you love that counts for a lot. Education is not just about helping us make a living. It is about helping us have a life.

    This is getting some way off the topic of growing new Bluefin consultants, now…:-)

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