With approximately £27,000 of debt hanging over a graduate’s head when they leave, university is looking a less attractive proposition than it once did.
Possible implications for the UK tech start-up scene are varied; will the number of start-ups coming out of the UK suffer with fewer graduate founders, or will more people be tempted to put their ideas into practice as an alternative to higher education (and higher personal debt)? This sounds very much like a rewording of the classic question: Should the aspiring entrepreneur first get a degree?
This topic has often been debated, usually on the far side of the Atlantic, where expensive college fees have been the norm for some time. Those who say don’t bother with a university education argue that the skills to set-up and run a business can’t be formally taught and that getting out there and starting companies is more valuable and useful experience.
Proactive advocates of this theory have recently been stirring the pot with PayPal cofounder Peter Thiel offering $100,000 grants to under 20s to ‘stop’ out of school and start-up businesses.
On the other hand, those who support university degrees for entrepreneurs point to: a higher education to fall back on if a start-up fails, university as a great networking opportunity or the support that universities offer in the form of entrepreneurship societies, attached business schools or incubators and careers services.
These are compelling arguments, but as usual the numbers tell the real story. In the US, where college fees are already high, 50% of small business owners and >90% of high-growth entrepreneurs have a college degree compared to a baseline 27.7% of over 25s. This speaks for itself, but how will these numbers translate to the UK?
One difference is that large fees for UK university tuition are a recent development and sting the harder for it. Coupled with this, there are new (and often free) ways to continue education in your own time and space.
MIT will offer a portfolio of free courses to a virtual community through MITx. CodeAcademy is a free online platform for learning coding and many universities now stream lectures or upload them via iTunes U or YouTube. A couple of years ago, I attended my first international lecture based entirely in Second Life! Then there are the new institutions being aimed specifically at entrepreneurs.
General Assembly, the New York start-up school is opening a campus in London this year. It joins a growing group of UK based work-space/events locations in East London that combine education and entrepreneurship with a hands-on focus. It may be that this change in the nature of education will still lead to highly educated entrepreneurs, but without the same number of degrees or University attendees as are found in the US.
However, when it comes to technical start-ups, I find it hard to believe that without formal higher education in a technical subject anyone could conceive of innovation in high-tech areas such as cryptography, natural language processing or fuel cells for example.
Being a graduate, I am selectively biased to support a university experience for budding tech entrepreneurs. In part this is because I thoroughly enjoyed my time at there, but also because the people I know who have started tech companies are friends and acquaintances I met there.
Among these guys there are two trends: either they started their companies based on research done during their degrees, a direct application of what they were learning; or they set up companies based on experience gained in graduate jobs.
The latter here were corporate jobs in highly competitive or technical sectors that required a degree to obtain, including: high frequency FX trading, concentrated solar photovoltaics and vertical wind turbine development among others. In both cases, a degree was integral to the path to starting a business, whether the education was directly applied or used as a stepping stone to get there.
As a final thought, starting a business and being a student don’t have to be mutually exclusive propositions. If you’re dead-set on becoming an entrepreneur then get started at uni and use the resources and like-minded people there to do it! Jobs, Gates and Zuckerberg did. Although one thing is for sure, it will certainly focus the mind dropping out of university to pursue a business idea if you’ve picked up £20,000 of debt with no degree to show for it!
Simon King is part of the ventures team at Octopus