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Paper Belt On Fire – a review

  • 5 June 2023
  • By Lucy Haire

This book review of Paper Belt On Fire by Michael Gibson was authored by Lucy Haire, HEPI’s Director of Partnerships.

If you work in or with universities and colleges, it’s easy to take for granted their raison d’etre. When books and articles are published that are critical of higher education institutions, whether their curricula, culture, scale, structure or even just their mere existence, the temptation is to be quickly dismissive. However, as every student of J S Mill knows, engaging with ideas with which you do not instinctively agree is a good way to try to improve your thinking and the level of debate all round. 

In his new book Paper Belt On Fire, Michael Gibson, pulls no punches when it comes to decrying universities, with statements like “a college degree signals information about its holder, but not what most people think. It doesn’t say all that much about the skills they acquired or what they learned. Instead, it’s telling employers information about a graduate’s ability to keep the promises of time, the willingness to sacrifice four years in the pursuit of a gruelling, even if useless, series of tasks and projects.” Getting a degree is all about spending time at an institution where authorities will then affirm you’ve completed something worthwhile, the author suggests. The best universities attract students who are already competent and capable, so their time is wasted seeking credentials which might carry kudos but make no real difference, Gibson claims. This is the gist of the signalling argument about which HEPI has published views before.

Gibson worked with Peter Thiel, co-founder of PayPal and serial investor in some of the world’s most famous technology companies. Gibson also worked with Thiel’s Foundation which gives a very small number of young entrepreneurs $100,000 over two years to skip university and instead build their own companies. Gibson then set up his own fund, the 1517 Fund, for which he and his co-founder, Danielle Strachman, seek out misfits, those who were bullied at school and renegades who are reluctant to attend university but who have interesting business ideas and entrepreneurial drive, for investment.  

1517 is of course the year that the theologian, Martin Luther, pinned his 95 Theses to a church door in Germany listing various excesses and corruption in the Catholic Church. In the Theses, Luther focused particularly on the practice of the church selling indulgences – certificates promising to reduce punishment for sin. Gibson sees the issuing of academic certificates (degrees) by modern-day universities with their promises for their recipients of a better life – richer, longer, healthier and fuller- as analogously fraudulent, hence the fund’s name.

It would be easier to dismiss Gibson as an outsider, ignorant of what really goes on in universities if he had no first-hand knowledge, but Gibson was in fact well on his way to an orthodox academic career, studying for a PhD in philosophy at the University of Oxford. He dropped out to begin working for Thiel. Similarly, co-founder Strachman is an education expert as a former college principal, albeit of a college with an alternative curriculum. Gibson perceives higher education as the US’s new religion which has spilled over into the media and professions, declaring that “if the Rust Belt has come to define the hollowed-out industries of the Midwest, in the next ten years the Paper Belt will come to define the paper-based industries from Washington, D.C., to Boston. In D.C., they print money, visas, and laws on paper. In Delaware, companies incorporate on paper. In NYC, they print media on paper. And in Boston, Harvard, and MIT print diplomas on paper. I am dedicated to lighting the Paper Belt on fire.”

Gibson laments the wasted time and talent of particularly young students sitting on their hands in lectures rather than getting on inventing, arguing that Nobel Prize winners of a few generations ago tended to be young and that the window of opportunity to do something great in anyone’s life might be small. “Our education system takes its sweet time pushing students out to the frontier in any subject, not because it’s difficult, but because there’s no urgency to get them there. The final, damning point is that our institutions simply don’t trust younger scientists and inventors. Grant-making bodies cover their ass by awarding research funding only to the established over the new, the prestigious over the experimental”, opines Gibson. A little later on, however, he seems to talk himself out of his own argument, acknowledging that many of the medical, scientific and other challenges that we now face globally are complex and require a lengthy period of specialist study and collaboration to get close to solutions.     

The founders of the 1517 Fund even produced their own 95 Theses, the first being, “why does everybody’s first thirteen years have to begin with the prison sentence of K-12 [compulsory schooling]”, a statement revealing a restless and sometimes angry spirit when it comes to formal education. That same critical tone permeates much of the book, attacking other investment houses, some perceived unjust returns on Gibson’s investments and apparently useless homework tasks set in school .  

Paper Belt On Fire makes for an excellent provocation but feels to be much stronger in building a case for supporting brilliant entrepreneurs who may well pop up outside the academy than it is in building a case for tearing down our great seats of learning. It provides the basis of an argument for praising what some incredible people who have not attended university have done rather than one that properly explains what is systemically wrong with universities. No one claims universities are perfect, but this level of attack feels egregious.

An area Gibson omits to discuss, and one which undermines his main thesis about higher education wasting people’s time, is that since universities have expanded in the US, UK and elsewhere, they have done a lot of heavy lifting in terms of providing education and opportunities for many students who, for a whole host of reasons, haven’t necessarily emerged from school with stellar examination grades or bright ideas for the kind of technology start-ups in which Thiel, Gibson and Strachman specialize. There are literally millions of stories of students finding their feet in higher education and turning round their fortunes from precarious starts in life, and also of universities transforming local economies and communities. Universities also cover a much broader spectrum of subjects, including ones that provide the pipeline for essential jobs like doctors, nurses, all the allied healthcare professions, teachers and so on. Universities also operate at scale in a way that isn’t true of small-scale bursary projects like the Thiel Foundation.

The last chapter of the book is devoted to thinkers that Gibson admires. What is perhaps surprising is that this list includes mostly university-educated individuals who have spent their careers, or at least a good chunk of them, on campuses, and seem to be very much a product of higher education, such as nuclear physicist Stanisław Ulam, professor of international relations, Joshua Goldstein, former Vice Admiral in the US Navy, candidate for Vice President of the USA in 1992 and prisoner of war in Vietnam, James Stockdale, neurosurgeon Henry Marsh and Nobel-prize-winning stem cell researcher, Shinya Yamanaka. The list goes on. The whole premise of this anti-university book seems to come unstuck here. Another problem with Paper Belt On Fire is the lack of coverage of the companies and technology that do emerge from university labs, and which HEPI often discusses and also universities’ role in educating a wide range of people who go into all sorts of lines of work, not just Gibson’s paper-belt industries. HEPI’s long-running academic experience survey also shows greater levels of content among UK students over the years than Gibson’s book implies possible.

No doubt it’s hard to make a splash for a book which calmly argues for a plurality of approaches to human achievement: polarised arguments get much more coverage. Simple Manichean bifurcations like “universities are bad, successful investment-backed tech start-ups run by university-avoiders are good” might be what publicists want to push. Yet, as the final chapter of this book shows, without acknowledging it, a great many fantastic ideas have and are coming out of universities. There is surely room in the world for some people to skip university altogether, a few to drop out while still many, many others stick with them.  

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  1. Dan says:

    The word ‘University’ covers institutions and subjects so broad and diverse that it obfuscates many sins (and saints). Choose your side, peerless research and innovation and transformers of community and region? or alternatively, pointless degrees, ineffectual and inefficient institutions, overpaid VCs? Perhaps sheep flocking to the latest metrics, rankings and regulations? All are probably true somewhere in the Higher Education world. Care must be taken to prevent losing the brilliant in an attack on the mundane, but it may not hurt to lose some of the mundane.

  2. What I don’t understand is why the author of this book, would attack university education, only to recognize that graduate alumna have achieved great things, in the final chapter. This doesn’t make any sense to me!?

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