Web Computing at University – Yay or Nay

With the 2015 UK Budget just being announced; the academically minded community from house holds earning less than £25,000 pa will no longer be able to receive maintenance grants – but will still be able to receive the same amount of money in the form of  a maintenance loan. With that the Chancellor – George Osbourne – has also suggested that universities that show good quality could be allowed to raise their fees (which are currently capped at £9,000 pa) in line with inflation from 2017/8.

Boss thinks I am a chatterbox

Boss thinks I am a chatterbox

Taking on average a three year university undergraduate degree from one of the top 10 universities for Computer Science where tuition fees are £9,000 , and borrowing an additional £3,000 through the maintenance loan on top we are looking at around £36,000 debt before you have even started earning. So it begs the question – is a web computing degree worth £36,000 now?

I am a graduate from a local University – one with large ties with Microsoft and Sun Microsystems which at the time of attending was in the top 10 of UK Universities for the undergraduate degree of Web Computing. Did I feel my degree was worth what I paid for it? That is a question which is difficult to answer.

On one hand it provided me with basic blocks to Object Oriented Programming (OOP) – (albeit in Java). On the other hand I learnt more working on clients sites at my part time job in a month than I did in a year at university. But am I being cynical across the broad of the degree type due to my university’s degree programme?

Skills I learnt after a three year undergraduate degree:

  • People skills. Once you get to know me I am a right chatterbox – however with new people I was very reserved. University put me places which made me connect to different people and that timid side is now gone.
  • Building blocks of programming. The first thing on the programme was OOP using BlueJ. At the time I wondered why on earth a web computing degree was teaching us this rather than a modern web programming language. Now I see it as a good way to introduce us to the fundamentals of coding which can be carried across to most languages.
  • Project management. Working with different teams on different projects as well as managing my own course projects in a short period time is something that would take longer on clients projects that would run for months rather than weeks.
  • Time keeping. We was told weekly to always make sure we track how long things take so that our future selfs can estimate jobs more accurately.
  • History. We talked a lot about how things came around and why things are they way they are. I would say 40% of the course involved us reading about the progression of Information Systems rather than learning the skills we would be using.
  • Research. One of the main skills that I think you should have – if you want to work in any industry – is knowing and wanting to keep up to date with the latest tools in your field. If someone does not know how to Google then it just shows they lack self motivation. Technically not from university – but if you don’t have this it soon shows through.
  • Hand Written Code. Not a skill unless its pseudo code but during one exam we was made to write Java code using pen and paper – not every useful in real world but can say we can do it I guess…

Skills I should have learnt – but learnt online:

  • DNS. The backbone of the internet. Without it your site is not there. During a three year degree we spent a shocking 2 minutes on DNS which involved looking at one slide of a bunch of arrows and the odd mention of A and MX records.
  • Design. There was one module on the course which was focused on the graphic design of a website. Our group asked if we could use CSS3 and HTML5 and was greeted with hesitance (these standards was used on all client projects I was working on at the time).
  • PHP. Once again – in three years there was one module that did not teach PHP but tested us on it with a shop front which included integrating a payment gateway. The lecturer admitted he was just put there because no one else would teach it, and would not tell us what kind of server the project would be using (which means I used a newer version of PHP which then broke my site when I finally submitted the project to the server he would test it on).
  • Dealing with clients. – There is no real way for this to be taught at university as every client is different and in the IT world the client and the agency can pick each other (sometimes it is just not a fit).
  • Job Interviews. If you was not doing a sandwich placement year, your “after university” advice amounted to 10 minutes of the course leaders asking us to put how well the university does at preparing us for work live in the NUS survey. When a peer pulled them on this it looked like the penny dropped that they had actually done nothing. That could be my university specific though.
  • Modern Technologies. The main issue with many courses is that they simply teach outdated languages or practices (yes – we was asked to build a site in a table!)

This is specific to my course naturally and I would be interested to see if other Web Computing courses across the UK are any different. However from what I learnt online to what I learnt at university – how does that balance out financially.

I got some skills that are great from my degree, however the skills that I use day to day all came from working/training as a junior and my own research. I think the choice of university or self taught is a very personal one – and it depends on how you learn best. If you are self motivated then you will go far regardless but by learning the skills you need online will always be more cost effective. With so many sites offering free courses out there – it has got to be worth just trying it before getting into debt at university. A few sites worth checking out are:

One thing I would add is that after interviewing people for various positions at Fruitbowl is that having a degree does not put you ahead. In fact from the graduates I have spoken to – they have often lacked a lot of the skills required needed, and then demanded more than their self-taught counterparts. Whilst I was at university I was often told that web developers on average earn £100,000 pa – there is not one person I know who is on that or near that. Just goes to show that good marketing can make people think something is better than it really is.