Yet we expect young people to sacrifice three years of their lives and take on average debts of £40,000 to obtain a university degree with no guarantee of a good career on completion.
Take away the social element as Covid has done, and there is vanishingly little value for money or time for many young people. This is an enormous opportunity cost for students, especially if they end up among the one in 10 unemployed graduates or the many more who are under-employed, not to mention the damage it is doing to the UK supply chain.
The world of work they will enter is undergoing a massive digital transformation. With increasingly complex tasks and processes being taken over by robotics, the management consultancy McKinsey has estimated 800 million jobs are at risk of automation.
That is a big bite of the global middle class. The opportunity is there for humans to leverage these technologies – but for this mastery to be possible, we need to promote logical problem solving, not rote learning, in our education system.
In the US, where I spent two decades starting and growing software companies, the connection between university and industry is close to seamless. Silicon Valley is steeped with generations of graduates from Stanford and Berkeley. Their research programmes at university become their companies on graduation as they rush to commercialise their work. But in Britain, many graduates must undergo secondary training courses or unpaid internships to gain the skills necessary for growth industries. Hardly a ringing endorsement of our universities.
The UK economy is crying out for digital skills. In Yorkshire, where my data software company WANdisco plc is jointly headquartered, we have more than 150,000 digital tech job openings a year and the numbers are growing. It is the same story around the UK. More than two-thirds of businesses have been reporting unfilled tech needs, according to the CBI.
CEOs desperately need people with tech talent to help their companies grow. We are not short in aptitude – around half of the population has the natural problem-solving abilities we look for in software developers. But we are short in numbers as they currently stand.
In public or in private, every CEO I know complains that the UK has a significant shortage of tech talent. Some of us are trying to do something about it. Chris May, founder and managing director of Mayden, launched his own programme in the South-West to create enough skilled software developers to keep up with growing demand at his digital health company. Today, iO Academy is ranked one of the top 10 coding bootcamps in the world.
In Yorkshire, I am launching a new venture called EyUp to create developers, generate jobs and invest in start-ups across the North. In partnership with iO Academy, EyUp Skills will deliver a fully immersive 16-week course to train students in the most in-demand technologies and methodologies used in software development today.
EyUp Jobs will help our graduates to find their ideal roles and provide assurance to employers that candidates have reached an outstanding level of competency. EyUp Ventures will provide start-up capital, investment knowledge and operating experience to new companies.
With EyUp, I believe we can produce 1,000 market-leading software developers and 100 outstanding start-ups every year. This is not just about helping successful companies like WANdisco and Mayden hire talent to meet growing demand for software and services. This is also about regeneration and helping people from every background to realise their potential and reap the rewards of a successful job.
The pandemic has shaken the long-held belief that the best jobs and the best companies have to be based in London. It is challenging the idea that every young person must aspire to go to university.
Places like Sheffield, Rotherham, Leeds and Bradford could very quickly find themselves attracting significant new tech investment and tech jobs if they can develop sources of skilled workers.
Instead of burdening themselves with enormous debts for questionable degrees, the next generation could be walking into well-paid careers instead.
David Richards is founder, chairman and CEO of WANdisco plc and co-founder of the David and Jane Richards Family Foundation.
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