University is a Zero Sum Game
Rene Girard is a philosopher most known for his concept of ‘Mimetic Desire’.
“Man is the creature who does not know what to desire, and he turns to others in order to make up his mind. We desire what others desire because we imitate their desires.”
It is rare for students to enter university knowing exactly what they want from it. Most have a vague idea that getting a degree will make them more employable and that in the long term it will result in better pay. As to what they’ll do with that degree — that’s a tomorrow problem.
University takes the boundless potential of students, with limitless optionality, and, through mimetic desire, funnels the majority down a truly unoriginal path.
Take my experience. I arrived at university with the vague idea of becoming a Chemical Engineer. Mainly driven by the fact I had a reasonable aptitude for Chemistry, which in itself was perhaps already a mistake. Physics and Maths make up around 80% of the curriculum, subjects I certainly had no divine blessing for.
Within a few weeks, it was clear the odds of wild career success were not in my favour, I started to contemplate a few different options. I made a circle of decent friends on my course, we studied together, revised together and grabbed beers after class. Inevitably conversations turned to where people were going with their careers. The most sought-after career among this group was a graduate scheme at an oil and gas company. These jobs were well-paid and perceived as high-status.
Months went by and a strange thing happened. I became certain that I wanted to be an oil and gas engineer. I’m not saying this never played on my mind before entering university, when I was younger I even did an internship with BP (which was actually a really positive experience). Still, the fact is, through no other mechanism than the permeation of desires from my peers, I’d gone from considering a career path as an option to knowing it is what I wanted to do. I put my head down, worked harder than most, worked the system and ended up finishing with one of the top grades in my class. I didn’t find the work or the content particularly riveting, I don’t think there was any deep intrinsic motivation, I was just seized by the desire to attain the job that my coursemates wanted.
I was lucky. In my third year I got the opportunity to do a year in industry working the job I coveted and realised quite quickly I was about as well suited to becoming a process engineer as Liz Truss is to running the UK.
Through direct experience, I managed to escape mimetic desire to some degree — it still took me another year out of uni to fall into a job I was a good fit for. I doubt many even get this far.
Universities may have once been a melting pot of ideas people used a springboard to charge their own path. But from my experience, it’s the opposite, it’s a hivemind of groupthink. This is evidenced by the fact that there are only 3–4 jobs considered desirable. Consultancy, Investment Banking & Finance Drone. Sure, there might be some people who are actually suited to these jobs, but the numbers don’t add up. The perceived ‘top jobs’ are oversubscribed 100 to 1. This even becomes a selling point — if they are rare they must be valuable. This is pure mimetics. If mimetic desire played no part in career decisions you’d have the ‘top talent’ desiring a much wider variety of fields.
Perhaps the most free-thinking people can go to University and not have the desires of others become their desires, but I was certainly not one of them. For most, University will shape the careers you consider as desirable, this is a shame. I truly believe everyone is uniquely born to do something really well. What are the chances of finding that if you spend four of your most formative years being shaped by others?
University as Default
The closest I ever got to considering anything but University as the next step after high school, was during the ubiquitous ‘gap yar’. I was toying with the idea of staying on another year and working in the mines of Australia, or on an off-shore oil plant. This was before the pound was in the shitter and the exchange rate was good. I calculated I could save over £30k if I worked this kind of job. I phoned my mum, and she got annoyed and told me it ‘wasn’t part of the plan’, I didn’t push back. Parents have their own prerogative for wanting their kids to go to university, we’ll come to that later.
Of course, my parents didn’t control me, if I’d really wanted to I could have stayed on and seen what happened. If anything the speed at which I dispensed with the idea was a testament to the flimsiness of my conviction. The reality is I just didn’t believe I had any other options than university. University is what somewhat academic kids like me did.
Thinking of this reminded me of a sports teacher I had at school, the kind of bloke who looks like he’s stepped out of a time capsule. He’d chew on his Hamlet cigars mid-training session dishing out pearls of wisdom from the sidelines.
One aphorism he loved was always given when we had to pick between the football and rugby group at the start of the year. ‘Don’t be the lowest common denominator, referring to picking football. I’m still not entirely sure what he meant by this, but I read it as don’t just do what everyone else is doing. That’s how I feel about university — it’s the decision that is made for you by default. Paradoxically, in modernity, you have to actively try if you don’t want to go to university, if you let the forces carry you — it’s where you’ll end up.
This is a sad state of affairs. University is a weird, theoretical style of learning, with an even odder metric of success (how well you can cram for exams), it’s surely not suited to so many people, people are carried to it through inertia. We need to actively consider options, not just assume uni is right for us. University has become a meme for all fairly academic kids. Culturally encoded behaviour as foundational as supporting a football team or avoiding bootcut jeans. It shouldn’t be.
University as Insurance
University is an insurance scheme for middle-class parents. University is a cap on the downside of your earnings potential. A decent degree will mean you can always earn £30k a year.
I’m not against insurance policies, and as a parent, I’m sure you’d do anything you could to give your kids a good baseline of living, I just prefer policies that I can pay for with cash, rather than with time, especially such vital time as your early twenties.
I’m not even sure as an insurance policy, university is even a very good one, after working a career for a few years you’ll probably have the same amount, if not more, career capital than most degrees provide.
Still, as long as we believe it’s insurance, we’ll pay a premium for it.
Teachers aren’t leveraged
We’ve talked a lot about why society probably funnels us into University and careers that aren’t suited, but what about the education itself? Perhaps the downside of homogenous thought can be countered by the upside of a great learning experience.
I’m not sure how you provide a great learning experience, but we can probably all agree you need good educators. I don’t think in the internet age the best educators are found at universities, to understand why we need to understand leverage.
One way to view technological advancement is the leveraging of the workforce. English, please. Well, a Biochemist in the 50s might have been able to complete 10 experiments for new drugs a week — now they can complete 10,000, they programme a computer with the variants they want and it does it for them. In the 70s a software developer might have written some code that made her company’s back-office functions twice as quick. Now she writes code for Salesforce, which makes millions of companies more productive. Small banks used to manage billions in assets, now big banks manage trillions (arguably this is an effect of globalisation not technology but you get the idea). This movement towards greater leverage, means bigger salaries and bigger opportunities (reach is much higher). In a capitalist society, high salaries are a big pull on talent, perhaps this is one of the reasons government is in such a god-awful state.
All but the top universities have done a poor job of leveraging their staff. A lecturer approaching retirement still gives to classes of the same size as she did in her starting years. The lectures may be recorded and distributed on the University Intranet, but by design, they are only shown to paying students (perceived scarcity), so you can hardly count this as leverage. This means the reach of a university professor is the same as it was 50 years ago, salaries have not grown in line with other professions. The best talent is not, for the most part, attracted to teaching.
Perhaps the best universities do enable staff to be leveraged. It seems every pop-psychology self-help book nowadays is written by a Stanford MBA. To what extent this is due to the universities, or just that self-promoting types tend to seek out opportunities where they can use the title of a well-known university to promote their work is unclear.
So where are the best educators? They’re on the Internet. 50 years ago, if you wanted to learn the theory of how to be a mechanical engineer you’d need to get it from textbooks and a lecturer. Now, through the beauty of YouTube, I can go to Khan Academy and learn from the top 0.001% of educators in their field on the difference between conduction and convection. These educators serve tens of thousands, and one lecture can be played for years to come. The reach of an hours work is orders of magnitude higher. Khan Academy is free, but through ads the lecturers on their earn millions a year, most of this being passive from past work. These educators have turned themselves into a product, infinitely replicable to thousands of eyeballs across the globe, your university professor is, at the end of the day, a pay-per-hour service.
The argument here isn’t that university should be replaced with online learning, its simply that 50 years ago, there was a proportionately much higher market value for university educators, the lack of leverage that has been bought to these roles means now the best minds are likely not going opting to become professors, or if they are, they’ll do it through leveraging the Internet.
The most valuable skills can only be learned, University teaches that which can be taught.
One of my biggest gripes with my experience of university is that students don’t learn the skills that are most valued in the market. Before exploring this topic let’s make the distinction between skills that can be taught and skills that can only be learned.
Every skill can be learned, but not all skills can be taught
- You can be taught the theory of business, but the knowledge of how to build a business can only be learned, through (shock) building a business.
- You can be taught the psychology of negotiation, but you can only learn the skill of negotiating by going through negotiations, again and again.
- You can be taught the techniques of writing, but you can only learn how to write by writing. My writing now is bad, but it’s twice as good as it used to be, and in 10 years it might be 10x better than it is now.
A learned skill can be amplified by being taught new things, but I think it’s impossible to teach someone a skill that must be learned.
Some skills (such as negotiating) we learn from such a young age, it’s almost pointless to be taught the theory. From the ages of 2–20 combative characters have probably gone through 1000’s of tiny negotiations. The marginal value accrued from learning theory at university is not a good use of time.
There are so many degrees out there that aim to teach skills that can only be learned. Any degree with ‘business’ in the title, most likely you’ll learn more about business working in a business for 1 year (or better yet starting one) than you would in 4 years of dissecting Porter’s Five Forces and obsesssing over building customer personas. I’m not saying there’s not a place for theory, I bloody love theory but it’s completely useless unless you have something practical you can apply it to. The number of people I’ve met who studied marketing or business but don’t know how to setup a Google AdWords, craft an email automation funnel, devise a referral scheme or write great content is beyond a joke.
In the last year of starting a web3 company our team has learned more about Finance, Economics, Computing, Sales, Business, Gamification and more because if we didn’t learn these things our company would die.
There probably is an argument to be made that University has to have an element of teaching, with students then self-learning in their free time. The history major learns the macro-forces that drove the French Revolution, in order to write an insightful essay on how it catalysed the end of city-state governance. Of course, there’s truth in this, but this is not an advantage of University per se. It’s no different to any form of self-learning. But Self-directed education has an ace up its sleeve — incentives.
When you are learning just for the sake of passing exams, there is no motivation to go deep into a topic. You learn the minimum required to meet some pre-defined end goal, anything else is a waste of your resources. I literally used to plan my workload around the weightings of my degree modules. If a topic was hard, but only accounted for a small portion of the grades, I’d learn the easy stuff that would get me some of the way there, and then come back to the more difficult points later if I had time, it wasn’t about preference it was just maximising that grade. The most dreaded question for every teacher is surely ‘will this be on the exam’ but this single sentence literally sums up the incentive problems at higher education. Students, for the most part, are indifferent to the subject matter, they just want a good grade.
When you learn without the expectation of grades you work at your own pace, you go deep into the areas that interest you, and you apply them to areas of your life, and as a result, your speed of real learning is orders of magnitude higher.
There are probably some degrees where university is the best option. If your aim is to be a doctor, you need a deep understanding of the body and hours of close observation before you can be ready to give someone health advice. But I think these topics are the exception, not the rule
We’ve been alluding to this throughout the article. While I think there are negative costs to university (homogeneity of ideas, bubbles of mimetic desire, sub-optimal methods of learning to name a few) the true cost of university is the opportunity cost.
Let’s measure the pure cost. I ended up borrowing £48,000 from the government, and my outstanding loan is now around £70,000. The government have capped the 9% interest rate to 7.3%, but that still means my principal doubles every 10 years or so if I don’t pay it down. In short, unless I make the critical tax mistake of earning a large salary, there’s no way this money is getting paid back.
This economic reality is mirrored in the data, there’s currently $280bn owed to the government from the student loan programme, and this will only grow over time.
Let’s assume the average person pays back half their student loan before they die (there’s no way to really predict this so pick the middle — Lindy) So the true cost to both the individual and society is 4+years of human capital + £24k (half the £48k)
Now we have the cost, do we not think we could do better with this huge resource? Personally, I’m certain I’d do far better with £25,000 in a business account and free reign. There haven’t been many experiments on what would happen if you gave a young person this kind of freedom, but perhaps the most well-known and controversial is the Thiel Fellowship.
The Thiel Fellowship was founded by legendary Venture Capitalist, and Paypal founder & CEO, Peter Thiel. He’s a divisive character with some interesting ideas including regularly injecting himself with the blood of young people, yes, you read that right. He also paid a team of lawyers millions of dollars a year to literally wait till the magazine that outed him as gay to trip up, before promptly seeing them to bankruptcy
Think what you want about this guy, the results of the fellowship are insane. For those who aren’t aware, the Thiel Fellowship basically pays 25 promising students $100,000 to drop out of college. It’s been running for 12 years and has paid 300 founders.
Here’s some results of fellowship members
- Vitalik Butern — Ethereum, $200bn+ Mcap
- Dylan Field — Figma, $20bn Mcap (just acquired by Adobe)
- Austin Russel — OYO, $8bn Mcap
I’m not an economist but the marketcap of all the companies that have been created through the Thiel Fellowship is nearly the size of the outstanding student debt in the UK, that sounds like a pretty good ROI…
Now, of course, the fellowship members were rigorously selected, the brightest of the bright, but this is the power of one individual, allocating $30m over 12 years. Imagine what you could do with nation-state budgets.
Dream a bit bigger world
I guess what fundamentally bothers me about higher education is that it is a recipe for mediocrity. As a world, we face insane challenges. If economic growth stagnates the whole credit system, which is predicated on believing tomorrow will be better than today, collapses. Two things drive growth, globalisation and technology. The Boomer Generation could afford to get by on mediocre technological improvements because of the tailwinds of globalisation. It made sense to go to university, earn a good salary, and get your 8% ROI on your house and ISAs. The mere fact of China, India and the rest of the Global South coming online was enough to fuel growth.
These days are now coming to an end, and the returns we can reap from globalisation are diminishing, if we want to ensure a strong economy, which in turn can solve climate change, and the myriad of other problems our country faces we need to innovate, we can’t be content with incremental improvements and the university-as-default meme is part of this narrative. The armies of consultants, bankers, civil servants and marginal engineers that are created by this system is just such a waste. We need radical technological leaps.
As a society, we need to create other options, options that allow individuals, with different desires, strengths and learning styles to flourish in Further Education, not this one-size-fits-all, cookie-cutter approach we take today. As always, I’m optimistic, I think programmes like the Thiel Fellowship can at least get people thinking about alternatives, shine a light on the broken educational system, and hopefully get us all to think about how we and our children should spend the most formative years of their lives.
My battery is about to die. Here’s some books I’ve read since the last issue, recommend them all.
Hamilton - Ron Chernow. Simply epic.
Actionable Gamification - Yu-Kai Chou. Great guide for anyone wanting to use gaming techniques to make better products.
The Road To Serfod - Friedrich Hayek. Best presented argument I’ve read on liberalism > socialism.
As always, if you enjoyed, spread the word