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Published 17 May 2012 05:00, Updated 17 May 2012 12:49
When I meet with young people and hopeful entrepreneurs, their imaginative projects often remind me that the internet has changed everything – but it hasn’t reduced the time it takes to earn an undergraduate degree. We can access almost limitless information from virtually any urban location through smartphones and tablet computers, yet the standard, three- or four-year course of study remains the rule at most traditional universities. Clearly, some learning no longer has to take place on campus, since students can learn almost anywhere.
I famously dropped out of high school at 16, so I am not particularly qualified to comment. But as a businessman, I am interested in the inefficiencies of educational systems, as these have not changed despite advances in technology.
From a practical perspective, a student writing a paper no longer has to walk to the library, then spend hours digging through reference books, taking copious notes in longhand that must be deciphered and transcribed into essay form, then typed up. Today, many students do not need to go to the library at all, opting instead to access information through a free Wi-Fi connection at the coffee shop. Tracking down important facts can take minutes, whereas researching a paper on almost any topic used to take at least half a day.
Why hasn’t there been more change in higher education? Because universities are tradition-bound, and so is our thinking. A university education often involves a student living on a campus – and continuing this practice reassures parents and students that they are getting their money’s worth, just like people visiting lawyer’s offices may be reassured by seeing walls lined with leather-bound law books. (I am sure few lawyers open those books any more, accessing searchable databases instead.)
With governments around the world making cutbacks to education, the costs incurred by young students are increasing, with many choosing to take loans. According to the US Department of Education, it takes students at public institutions 55 months to complete a bachelor’s degree, on average. Though this may be idyllic for students who are not in a hurry, for others it is wasteful, inefficient and expensive.
In many fields, the duration of university undergraduate degree courses could be shortened by a year or more. This would enable skilled young people to move into the workplace more quickly and, in countries where not much financial assistance is available, with far less student-loan debt, which can limit students’ options after graduation.
Over the years Virgin has done well in markets where incumbents have become lazy. They do business in a particular way for no other reason than “that’s the way we’ve always done it”. Though Virgin is not likely to get into the higher education business (at least, not right now) this certainly strikes me as a sector where a serious overhaul is overdue.
In the airline business, an important key performance indicator is the average number of hours an aircraft spends in the air per day. Planes are expensive: when they’re sitting on the ground you still have to pay the mortgage, even though they aren’t contributing to the bottom line. You’re doing a pretty good job if you keep your them flying for at least 12 hours a day.
The same calculations apply to fixed overhead costs for almost any business. Could you justify the rent on your office building if your employees used it for only 2½ days a week? Of course not, but that is about the equivalent annual use of most university campuses. Like an airline working to improve aircraft utilisation, it’s largely a matter of scheduling and manpower challenges.
In the US, students typically attend about 100 weeks of higher education over three to four years. Now that long-distance learning is possible and some assignments can be done more quickly, this could be reduced to 80 weeks over two to three years. This would still leave time for a four-month summer break and summer jobs. Colleges and universities, in the meantime, could use their facilities to train other students.
The commercial world has sped up and become a lot more competitive; it’s time for academia to do the same. No matter how great your qualifications are, if somebody else in your field graduates a year before you do, they will have a jump on you in the job market. So cast tradition aside – get ahead!
Next week. we take a break from Smart Talk, in the Rich 200 issue.