Innovation

Why free university '42' breaks all the rules for educating engineers, and is coming to the US

French entrepreneur Xavier Niel and educator Nicolas Sadirac have crazy ideas about how to train software developers and run a university. Could 42 transform higher education in the US, or is it just an edge case?

Niel and Sadirac
Xavier Niel and Nicolas Sadirac, co-founders of 42
Image: Jason Hiner/TechRepublic

French university École 42 torches the instruction manual on how to educate software engineers.

It eliminates teachers. It doesn't make students memorize facts, or even buy books. There's no syllabus or curriculum to be found anywhere in the school's Paris headquarters. And to top it off, it doesn't charge students any tuition or fees.

If this sounds like a party, it's not. It's brutally competitive to get accepted—80,000 students applied for 1,000 spots in last year's class—and the students who do get in are thrown into the deep end on projects that operate at the pace of tech startups.

It's the kind of school that Nicolas Sadirac—who once hacked the French Prime Minister's website to demonstrate how easy it was—has always wanted to run. In 2013, French billionaire Xavier Niel put up the money and together Niel and Sadirac founded École 42, now commonly known as simply 42.The name, of course, comes from The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, which famously said, "The answer to the ultimate question of life, the universe and everything is 42."

That gives you a pretty good idea of how ambitious Sadirac and Niel are thinking.

The concept for building a new kind of university is based on a pair of ideas:

  1. University programs can't keep up with IT: Traditional academic programs are not properly preparing students for what's needed to work in IT, and the world is going to need a lot more IT workers in the years ahead.
  2. College costs too much money: Because a university education is now so expensive, IT misses out on a lot of people who have the potential to be good at the work, but either can't afford it or would have to take on a monstrous amount of debt to get educated.

Sadirac has multiple advanced degrees, knows how to code in all the most important languages, and worked as an educator for 15 years before co-founding 42. He said a traditional academic program spends too much time on background knowledge that IT professionals never use.

"When you know stuff in IT, you know it for a very short time," said Sadirac. It's more important to know how to learn and solve problems. Memorizing facts is virtually worthless, as is studying abstract subjects that provide very little basis for useful knowledge or skills, according to his view.

"We believe IT has nothing to do math and physics," said Sadirac. "It's more artistic than scientific."

As a result, Sadirac and the team at 42 architected a project-based learning program that is entirely executed through software. The program functions like a game and as students progress, they achieve new levels. Once they get to level 21, they graduate.

However, don't think of 42 as a bunch of college kids with their headphones on, glued to computer screens all day. The students are broken up into small teams and given projects to complete—some of them are real projects from 42's corporate partners. The teams have to accomplish the work together, so it creates a peer-to-peer learning environment.

The day I visited 42 last month at its campus in the 17th Arrondissement of Paris, about half the students were bent over iMacs in a giant open floor plan while the other half were either huddled around tables in the basement collaborating or were up on the second floor mapping out their ideas on whiteboards. Even among the students working on computers, roughly half of them were on grouped together with their teammates to plan their work.

students at 42
Students at 42 spend a lot of time collaborating and learning from each other.
Image: Jason Hiner/TechRepublic

The students who are there, want to be there—and they want to work. Of the 80,000 applicants, 42 brings in around 3,500 of them every year and gives them a trial. They use the French concept of the swimming pool. "We push them all in the pool and see who doesn't die," said Niel.

The best 1,000 who make it through the trial become official 42 students.

"Startups are very unstable," said Niel, "so we need people who can understand that the world will change around them"

And make no mistake, training software engineers who are ready to be entrepreneurs or "intrapreneurs" (innovators inside big companies) is the primary goal of 42. Sadirac said its number one metric for success will be how many students create companies and the overall value of those companies.

The school only started three years ago—and the program is meant to be finished in an average of three years—but the school's students have already started 70 companies worth 8 million euros.

"We don't teach [entrepreneurship]," said Niel. "We put students in the situation where they have to do it."

The university doesn't take equity in the startups that rise out of 42, and there are no hidden fees. Niel put up almost $100 million euros to fund the school for 10 years—$20 million euros in setup costs and about $7 million euros per year in operating costs.

Much to Sadirac's surprise, the program has drawn a lot of attention from the press and the tech industry. Wired featured it before it even launched and high profile attendees to the popular tech conference LeWeb stopped by 42 in 2014 and started talking it up back in the US. As a result, Silicon Valley CEOs like Jack Dorsey (Twitter), Tony Fadell (Nest), Stewart Butterfield (Slack), Leila Janah (Sama), and Keyvon Beykpour (Periscope) have been vocal about their support of 42 and the kind of engineers that it's training.

The biggest question hasn't been whether the concept could work in the US, but how soon 42 could bring the disruptive idea across the pond. In May, Niel and his team officially announced plans to open a campus in the San Francisco Bay Area. Funded by a separate $100 million from Niel—$40 million in setup costs and about $8 million/year to operate—42 will open this fall in Fremont, California (most famous as the home of Tesla's manufacturing plant).

For students between 18 and 30 who are interesting in 42, they can apply online. Below is 42's promo video on why it's opening a US campus:

Final analysis

At a time when the US is struggling to deal with skyrocketing college costs and crushing student loan debt, the big question is whether 42 can offer an effective alternative to the traditional college model.

One of the biggest arguments against it is that it is so focused on applied knowledge and specialized skills that its students may not learn the kind of critical thinking and big picture analysis that liberal arts majors get, for example. The counterpoint is that traditional students get knowledge and skills that they don't put into context in the real world, while everything the students of 42 learn is in the context of solving problems and accomplishing tasks.

If 42 does prove to be a viable learning model, how will it sustain itself economically? The endowment from Niel is for 10 years. Sadirac said that at year 7 they'll have to start figuring out how to sustain themselves beyond that. One possibility is that students who go on to successfully start their own companies will give back to the school and create a long-term endowment. But, that could largely depend on a few of them becoming massively successful.

There's a lot of enthusiasm about 42 and we have to tip our hat to the school for taking one of the most innovative approaches to higher education and IT training that we've seen. But, we'll have to reserve most of our judgment until we see how well its students do in the real world. The early returns are good—the 42 students are in demand for internships and several have already done internships and made themselves invaluable enough that they started working full time and now finish their studies at 42 on the side. But, let's see if they can launch breakout hits and become leaders in the industry over the next decade. That will be the ultimate measure.

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About Jason Hiner

Jason Hiner is Global Editor in Chief of TechRepublic and Global Long Form Editor of ZDNet. He's co-author of the book, Follow the Geeks.

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