A better vocational curriculum for university

Since my days at the old alma mater, I’ve grown increasingly vitriolic about how poorly modern universities serve students’ needs. My favourite bit of evidence for this: an engineering degree, an English literature degree, and a business degree all typically have the same amount of required subjects. Surely a marketing professional doesn’t need as much theoretical training as an aerospace engineer. Surely.

There have been a few good posts on Twitter and the blog sphere recently on the question: how would you redesign a university curriculum to optimise for success in the job market? Rajat Suri answered a slight variation: designing for “smart people who don’t know what they want to be.” Rusty Guinn at Epsilon Theory responded with his own version. Ben Hunt, the CIO at Epsilon Theory, threw out the challenge for people to engage with the question and provide their own answer.

So here’s mine – or at least a first draft.

Opening remarks

The aim is to bring graduates out into the world of work maximally prepared for any job, in the minimum amount of time. I think a year is sufficient. Like Rusty, I would be happy to pit one of my students against the average graduate of any traditional university in a contest of job aptitude and career success.

Classwork and assessment would resemble how the business world operates:

  • Work on small- to medium-sized projects: none of this ‘learn everything for a chunk of time then regurgitate’
  • Deliver value quickly: see above, plus this allows for rapid feedback and correction
  • Collaborate with others: at a regular university this is called ‘plagiarism’ and ‘cheating’, while in the workplace, this is called ‘teamwork’ and is necessary to get anything done
  • Negotiate requirements and the definition of success: in the workplace, a task rarely arrives set in stone – smart workers will know this from day one and be ready to play the game.

The school year would have four terms of nine weeks each plus a 10-week exchange term in the middle, a one week break between terms. We would finish just before Christmas, ready for the graduates to go home to the family and start their amazing job in the new year.

Each term has a theme, such that the topics in each term are designed to interleave well. Knowledge and skills gained from one subject will reinforce and help in the others.

The curriculum

Term 1: skills needed to maximise learning from the rest of the year

How to learn

  • The psychology of learning
  • Effective note-taking
  • Spaced repetition
  • Physiological factors (the importance of enough sleep and good nutrition)

Managing yourself

  • Time management
  • Procrastination: causes and ways to circumvent
  • Attention management


  • Being clear on your goal
  • Negotiation techniques
  • Practice sessions

Term 2: the basic tools you’ll need in any job


  • How to make a written argument
  • Structuring a document
  • Most important grammatical concepts
  • When to use longform vs email vs Slack messages

Statistics and data analysis

  • Measure of central tendency
  • Measures of variation
  • Turning data into insights
  • Interpreting statistics
  • How statistics can be abused, and how to spot this

Basic programming

  • Javascript (plus a short intro to HTML and CSS)
  • Python scripting
  • Python for data analysis
  • Bash basics

Why Python and Javascript? Popular, huge community, widespread, and most importantly, they allow you to instantly do magic things which will be useful in any job.

Middle term: exchange to a foreign country

Intensive foreign language training

  • Five days a week, six hours per day language learning
  • Rest of the time explore the country and immerse yourself in the culture

I predict that this will be one of the points of contention with my curriculum – devoting a whole term to language, whoa! My logic: we live in an ever-more connected, globalised, cosmopolitan world, and people who understand that first-hand and can engaged with it effectively have a huge advantage. Perhaps not in every job, but the probability is high enough that it will be helpful at some point that I’m comfortable with putting this in.

Oh, also: learning a foreign language is one of the best ways to improve your grasp of and ability to effectively use your native language.

Term 3: thinking and organising

Decision making

  • Cognitive biases
  • Logical thinking
  • The role of instinct and emotion
  • Tracking and evaluating past decisions

Project management

  • Resource constraints
  • Prioritisation
  • Dependencies and connected parts
  • Minimising risk/cost of failure

Scientific method

  • Hypothesis formation
  • Scientific rigour
  • How to run an experiment
  • Evaluating results from an experiment
  • When the scientific method is not the best tool

Term 4: key business and economics knowledge


  • Personal finance: taxes, investing basics, diversification
  • Corporate finance: sources of capital, business models
  • Country finance: trade, capital flows, monetary and fiscal policy basics

Game theory

  • One-off, perfect information games (as an introduction)
  • Repeated games (and the implications for other domains)
  • Mixed strategies
  • Optimal strategy selection in game theory simulations


Heavy on ideas, light on the mathematics. Not because I want to spare my graduates the numerical rigour, but because the value of economics is in the conceptual tools it gives you, not the beautiful models that don’t correspond to reality.

  • Opportunity cost and sunk cost
  • Profit maximisation
  • Market structures
  • Adverse selection and moral hazard
  • Asymmetric information