It’s 9.30am on a grey Thursday morning in May, and long banks of iMacs stand idle in a former government building on Boulevard Bessières in north Paris. The morning lack of activity, explains Xavier Niel, a French billionaire who is leading a tour of his three-year-old experimental university, isn’t a concern; rush hour is 2 or 3am.
“You’d see 300 or 400 students here at night,” Niel says. “We’re open 24 hours – the French president was here taking selfies at midnight. And you’ll notice that there are no teachers – this is a project-based school. You get no diploma.”
Niel, who made his fortune by taking on France’s telco establishment with his Free ISP and mobile businesses, declared in 2013 that “the education system doesn’t work”. So he decided to reinvent it, by funding an ambitious merit-based coding school without teachers, without a syllabus, without entrance requirements and without fees.
The school, called École 42 (the answer to the question of “life, the Universe and everything” in The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy), is funded, in Niel’s words, “by my credit card”: ˇ20 million (£17m) for launch costs, and around ˇ7m a year in running costs for the first decade. “After that,” he says, pointing to three American students, “we hope one of you guys will be the next Zuckerberg.”
Peter Thiel, Jack Dorsey and Tony Fadell have come here to marvel at how Niel’s school has challenged existing notions of higher education. Snapchat’s Evan Spiegel is among the converts: “You feel you’re walking into a school from the future,” he declared. “It’s a transformative way to learn.”
So, to the acclaim of his Silicon Valley friends, Niel in autumn 2016 opened a second branch in Fremont, in California, with a $100m (£76m) commitment. It’s all part of his mission to make talent and merit, not means, the gateway to a quality tech education.
And it all comes down to talent-spotting via a merit-based game. “We have 80,000 applicants a year who play an online game, and 25,000 finish,” Niel explains. “We take the 3,000 best and ask them to come to the school for a month – that’s 450 hours of 15-hour days, including Saturday and Sunday. After five or six days, a third of them leave. And then we take the 1,000 best.”
The survivors – 80 to 90 per cent of whom are French, but which also includes many Americans – win a free education, help in finding accommodation (Niel is building 900 flats), loan guarantees of €15,000 if needed, and access to high-quality internships. “Forty per cent don’t have a Baccalaureate, and half the students in this school are from poor families and wouldn’t be able to afford it,” Niel says. An American woman, with a biology degree from Yale, smiles and says: “We’re the lucky ones.” Niel counters: “There’s no luck.”
The project-based curriculum consists of 21 modules – or, as Niel calls them, “game levels” – designed by six staff in an upstairs enclave called “the cluster”. Apart from a five-minute instructional video and PDF, students are left to learn in groups. After a month, they should be able to code in C; they’re challenged to build Tetrisand Sudoku from scratch using their new skills. They then move at their own pace: the fastest student finished school after 18 months; others will take five years.
Game dynamics are everywhere: to get projects corrected, students must spend “correction points” – which they earn by correcting someone else’s project. If there’s a disciplinary breach, they have to spin a wheel to learn their punishment: “Take orders at the coffee machine”, or “Clean the windows with a toothbrush”. Good behaviour earns “wallet points” which can be spent.
There are still some bugs to iron out: fewer than ten per cent of students are women, which 42 is trying to change by inviting secondary-school girls to spend holiday time at the college. Graduate salaries, Niel says, are typically €42,000-€45,000 in the first year, “yet with better coding levels than US graduates earning $140,000”.
École 42 is far from the only ambitious ed-tech experiment being led by a bold tech entrepreneur. California- and Hong Kong-based Age of Learning raised $150 million last May; China’s 17zuoye recently raised $100 million; and Udemy raised $113m. Then there are Udacity, Coursera, iTutorGroup, Pluralsight, the hyper-selective Minerva Project university… indeed, AngelList documents a staggering 11,812 education startups.
Kevin Carey, author of The End of College: Creating the Future of Learning and the University of Everywhere, sees a global $4.6 trillion market being disrupted. That may not be a bad thing: under the current university system, student debt in the US alone is now estimated at exceeding $1.2 trillion.
But Niel, who learned to code at 16 on a Sinclair ZX81 and dropped out of school to work on Minitel phone-connected monitors, doesn’t see himself as taking on the establishment. “France is amazing,” he tells WIRED. “I’ve helped finance a thousand startups, and I like to have a good relationship with the French establishment. I like to help entrepreneurs.”