Questioning University

November 16, 2011 – 8:17 pm

There’s a trend now to question the value of a university education. It used to be that simply possessing a university degree gained you access to a Better Class of Job. That is no longer the case; now you have access to The Same Class of Unemployment Benefit. Even degrees in subjects without immediate business application (classics, art history, etc.) were valued as a sign of studiousness, discipline, etc. at least in so much as they put the possessor into the class of People Who Have A Brain. These days so many people are emerging with degrees that a degree alone isn’t enough to separate you from the herd.

That this happens in the liberal arts is understandable. But there’s also a move afoot to reject Computer Science degrees: “go straight into a startup!” people say. I used to oppose this: university taught me what I was doing when I programmed. It didn’t make me a good programmer (though it sorted out some dodgy techniques I had as a self-taught kid) but it taught me how to think about solving problems, to recognize common problems, and to understand the different dimensions of tradeoffs all through languages, operating systems, databases, networking, and more.

So I was in favour of CS. “Go to uni!” I would say.

Past tense.

This weekend I met with a recent CS grad and we talked about what he should do. He had signed up for Honours, then realized he wasn’t interested by the research. And, talking to him, I realized he’d had the wrong approach to university. I had also had the wrong approach to university.

The right approach is to learn as much as you can. For a few years you have a lower pressure to earn, you have wide-open license to stretch your thinking in as many directions as you can, you have huge resources and opportunities around you, and you can do anything.

I came close: I had fun. I played with early Internet services, was hired to write some (learning sockets as I went), set up regional mirrors of software archives, and got caught up in the early web. None of this was deliberate (I never sat down and said “I will try as many Internet services as I can; this Internet thing will be big!”) it just happened to be the right thing for me.

My friend, however, didn’t even come close. He fell into the same trap that most people at university fall into: he thought the goal was to get the degree.

“Fuck no!” I told him. The degree is a side-effect! If you learn as much as you can, expand your mind, discover what interests you, and chase it as far as you can, you’ll get the degree (assuming you also spend some time studying). But to fuck around OUTSIDE university instead of learning, so as to do “the minimum amount of work necessary to pass” (my words, not his) — that’s a mistake.

But nobody tells the kids this. Of course, being kids, perhaps they wouldn’t respond. Education, like youth, is wasted on the young. I stay in touch with a few CS lecturers and they all bemoan the cohorts of students who aren’t interested in the subject, only “will this be on the final exam?”.

This young fellow I was talking to, he came out with the usual patchy set of skills. University didn’t actually teach him much that was directly useful. If he goes and joins a company, he’s going to have to hustle for a year or so to get his programming act together and be useful. University teaches that various computational things exist, but until you’ve used them in anger and had them ingrained into your way of thinking, you’re not going to be a good programmer. It’s the difference between having to struggle to conjugate verbs in a foreign language vs having that stuff be automatic and reflexive. It’s not muscle memory, but it has to become so.

Of course, rightly, universities don’t pretend to be producing useful programmers. “We teach high-level concepts,” they say, just as I did. But the high-level concepts that I learned were useful to me: what an operating system has to do and how you might divide the labour, how to describe and process regularity (hello, regular expressions!), the challenges of randomness and linearity as exemplified by the different approaches to memory management that I’d encounter in various programming languages, etc. The classes I tuned out (AI, for example), I wish I’d paid more attention to now! The stuff he learned, though, struggled to be useful: the description he gave of his HCI class didn’t seem to be coupled at all to the design considerations in my world. I think there’s a minimum amount of useful you have to be, and I wonder what the distribution of useful is across different university CS programs.

I still distrust the “just go to a startup!” people, though. There’s a huge industry whose raw ingredients are programmers. Only a few of them regard those programmers as a resource to be developed instead of exploited. “If you’re a good programmer, skip university and go to a startup” may be right for a handful of people, but for most kids it could easily reduce the probability that they will ever become a great programmer. The leisure to learn at university is NOT afforded you at a startup. The people telling you to join a startup do not have your best interest in mind. And, of course, startups require you to solve a problem–the only problems kids have are getting laid and scoring weed, and those were (not coincidentally) well solved by Mark Zuckerberg.

So what do I tell my kids? Should I urge them to go to university? Should I tell them to jack it all in and run off and join a startup? This is what’s occupying my mind now.

When I look forward to the world they’ll come of age in, I don’t see a world with careers like people had in the 60s. I do see a future in which they’ll have to be self-reliant, know how money works, know how to sell, to start and run a business. That argues for startup, or some kind of financial experience. But they should also know how to learn, to think about the general not just the specific, to analyse. Traditionally, they’d acquire those skills at university. Will they do so in the future?

I don’t know whether I’ll steer my kids toward uni. I’m trying hard to give them business experience before they leave school. I just sat down with Mr 12 and we ran through this month’s set of board papers for a real company, talking about what’s on the agenda and why, and getting our heads around the financials to see what stories they tell about the company’s performance. It was great to have a discussion of the differing risks of fixed-price vs time & materials, see them come up again in the CEO report, and then reflected in the financials.

In the end it’s up to the kid whether university makes sense for them, but if it looks like it’s on the cards then I plan to:

  1. Take them on research trips around the various universities to find out what courses are offered relevant to their interests and see how they map to practitioners,
  2. Remind them that university isn’t about having a piece of paper at the end, it’s about what you can learn getting it.
  1. 5 Responses to “Questioning University”

  2. I started university in the days before student loans and a universal allowance, dropped out and went back in the early 90’s. The biggest change was the “meal ticket” concept of a degree. It wasn’t that we didn’t care about jobs in the late 70’s early 80’s but rather there was more freedom to change track in universities which expanded the possible pathways. For instance you could start in sciences and switch to arts or vice versa, engineering got swapped for music and philosophy, biology for computing. Even back then the guys who got into computing – one of the exciting new pathways – were being tempted away by the big money the could earn even before the graduated.

    Having spent several years working in tertiary student support and seeing the degree of crisis young people can go through in the last year of their degree when they panic that they have been trapped by wrong choices I was pretty reflective about my kids going to university as well, even though I still think that university can be a huge learning opportunity. All four of my adult kids went into tertiary education but they went with the proviso that their first year was to explore the options and that they could change their minds. In some ways it was the luxury of decent income that allowed us to let them do that but I still believe in the big scheme of things giving yourself space to adjust your life choices at such a major transition point is more important than money. Two did change track, the other two finished with plans to explore other options at a later stage.

    I think the strength of a good degree course is not only teaching those wider thinking skills but doing that in an environment where you are constantly challenged – for instance while I used to get really irritated by the super conservatism of some of the “meal ticket” guys in my tutorials I still had to engage with them.

    What concerns me a bit about IT education is that the pace of change is so rapid and a lot of kids who are good at it will self teach to a greater degree – I think if I had a kid who was skilled in any rapidly changing field (medicine might be an exception) I’d encourage them to do a degree in a subject that really fascinated them where they would be challenged rather than credentialize skills they already have.

    So I totally agree with your plan 2 – I’d be a bit cautious about plan 1, partially because practitioner skills can change so rapidly and partially there will always be an element of a new graduate having to “pay their dues” and mature in their field.

    By sonjanz on Nov 16, 2011

  3. I dunno about where you live, or what’s changed in the last 20 years — but to me university was about so much more than getting a degree, and also about so much more than immersing myself in CS.

    But university gave me a chance to find myself. Meet new people, experience independent living in a town away from my family; manage my own finances; socialise with people from wildly different backgrounds to my own; extend my cultural influences. I worked part-time at a cinema. I experimented with my image.

    This is all extremely valuable, and I feel sorry for people who leap straight from school to a career.

    By JohnH on Nov 17, 2011

  4. Coming from a music background, I’m very concerned with the work/life balance, that people’s thinking be about more than just money. I like students who study what they’re interested in and don’t know what career they’re going to get. They are human.

    One problem with Computer Science courses is that academic staff are going to struggle to keep up with new developments because they are changing so fast. I looked into a CS degree for upskilling purposes and got the impression the curriculum isn’t very well planned, so it might matter quite a lot which university you go to. You might want a thorough grounding in the history of computers and an understanding of the electronics and hardware and how they evolved to what they are today. An understanding of these low level workings of the machine should help any programmer.

    Sadly, a course geared towards money might just teach you to cut and paste code snippets like monkeys on a production line that just plug in parts like Lego pieces and don’t ask too many questions. People who think “money first” tend to create bloated frameworks that you have to add new layers to, always in a hurry.

    By Flase on Nov 17, 2011

  5. Unfortunately I have to agree. I graduated in 2009, and I found the way university courses were marketed and the way my high school regarded university was all about doing a course to get you a job. 1. I don’t think that is necessarily what university should be for. 2. I definitely doesn’t deliver.

    If I had gone to university just looking to learn whatever I found interesting I would have done far better and found it much more valuable. However it took till about my 4th year before I realised that, by which point it was a little late. That said I picked up some useful stuff on the way, almost accidentally. And it gave me some time to grow up.

    I studied computer systems engineering. I now work in web development. I use very little of what I learnt at uni, and because my course was more focused on low level C & electronics I’ve had to teach myself classic computer science concepts that I missed.


    By rjmackay on Nov 19, 2011

  6. I completely agree with the once-upon-a-time value of university, and in doubting that it works the same as it did. I think this is partly a sad side-effect of the commercialisation of it, pummelled further into the ground by the obvious and inevitable comparison of student loans with the potential income one could be earning.

    I first went to university in the late 70’s, and then (after failing rather abysmally) again in the late 80’s, which was a lot more fun, and immeasurably more successful. The difference was dramatic: the first time through I was as naive as a sunbeam, and treated the institution largely as an extension of school. I failed, at almost everything.

    Returning six years later, after clawing my way through a technical qualification and working in the electronics industry for a few years I knew that there were more interesting things to be doing with my life. While I still had problems with the general format of a university education (despite topping 1st year compsci I failed to complete any other computer science courses due to my short attention span, their general lack of challenge and the insane makeworkloads) I was still able to pass many courses (Educational Psychology, Linguistics, Anthropology, Logic, Economics, German, Aesthetics and many in between) and I did finally get a degree, as a side-effect. Enjoying what I was doing turned out to be an essential characteristic for passing any subject.

    I’ve now worked in the IT industry for 30-odd years, and in that time I’ve interviewed many graduates. Mostly I’ve found Computer Science graduates to be boring (though not always, of course) and in many cases the students seem to think that the degree was a ticket to earning faster. Having a large loan hanging over them focuses the student on earnings growth rather than personal growth.

    I expect that my own son will be off to University in four years time and I’m looking at the education system in New Zealand and thinking that this kind of dedication to the god of money does not promote good thinking or society, so I expect I’ll encourage him to look further afield. After all, if you’re paying for your education you can pay for it pretty much anywhere, and there definitely *are* interesting places to study in the US, Europe and elsewhere.

    Heading off into a startup is OK, too, but be prepared to be bored and limited after half a dozen years, and at that time the value of a university education could well be more obvious.

    By Karora on Nov 22, 2011

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