Branson: Undergraduate degrees take too much time

It shouldn't take universities four years to deliver a B.Sc. in the information age.

(Photo: John Knill/Getty)

When I meet with young people, their entrepreneurial projects often remind me that the Internet has changed everything—at least when it comes to accessing information. But it hasn’t reduced the amount of time it takes to earn an undergraduate degree. We can access almost limitless data quickly through smartphones and tablets, yet the standard three- or four-year course of study remains the rule at universities.

I famously dropped out of high school at 16, so I’m not particularly qualified to comment on this subject. But as a businessman, I’m interested in the inefficiencies of educational systems. From a practical perspective, a student writing a paper no longer has to walk to the library, spend hours digging through reference books, taking copious notes in longhand, then write and type up the essay. Many students do not need to go to the library at all, opting instead to access information over Wi-Fi at a coffee shop. Tracking down important facts can take minutes, whereas it used to take hours.

Why hasn’t higher education responded to these changes? Because universities are tradition-bound, and so is our thinking. Students have long tended to live on a campus while at university, and continuing this practice reassures parents and kids that they are getting their money’s worth, just like people visiting lawyer’s offices may be reassured by walls lined with leather-bound law books. (I am sure few lawyers open those anymore, accessing searchable databases instead.)

With governments around the world reducing education funding, the costs incurred by young students are increasing. Many have to take out loans. According to the U.S. Department of Education, it takes students 55 months to earn a bachelor’s degree on average. This may be idyllic for youth who are not in a hurry, but for others it is wasteful and costly.

In many fields, the duration of undergraduate degrees could be shortened by a year or more. This would enable skilled people to move into the workforce more quickly and with far less student debt.

Over the years, Virgin has competed well in markets where incumbents do business in a particular way for no other reason than “that’s the way we’ve always done it.” Though we’re not likely to get into the higher-education business, it certainly strikes me as a sector where a serious overhaul is overdue.

For example, in the airline business, a key performance indicator is the average number of hours your aircraft spend in the air. Airplanes 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 planes flying for at least 12 hours per day, assuming they’re filled with paying passengers.

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 utilization, it’s largely a matter of overcoming scheduling and manpower challenges.

In North America, students typically attend about 100 weeks of post-secondary schooling 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. Universities, in the meantime, could use their facilities to train other students.

No matter how great your qualifications are, if somebody else in your field graduates a year earlier, they will have a jump on you in the job market. The commercial world has sped up in the past decade. It’s time for academia to do the same.

Richard Branson is a philanthropist, adventurer, entrepreneur and founder of the Virgin Group of companies