Why IT education is bottom of the class
Welcome to 21st century Britain, where there are computers in every classroom, teachers are armed with laptops and interactive whiteboards and… there’s a crippling IT skills shortage on the way. That’s the stark warning coming from industry figures and education experts.
Faced with a flurry of sexier subjects, universities branding IT qualifications as “too soft” and the perception that the IT industry is in decline, the number of students taking computing exams is in freefall. Official figures reveal the number of students taking A-Level computing has plummeted by 14% in the past year – this summer, just over 6,000 pupils sat the computing A-Level. Only 14,000 took the more vocational ICT A-Level. Sciences, the building blocks for much computational science, are also tumbling – physics A-Level applications have fallen by more than half in the past 20 years.
“Employers are increasingly worried about the long-term decline in numbers studying A-Level physics, chemistry and maths, and the knock-on effect on these subjects,” said CBI director general, Richard Lambert. “They see, at first hand, the young people who leave school and university looking for a job, and compare them to what they need, and increasingly they’re looking overseas for graduates. The UK risks being knocked off its perch as a world leader in science, engineering and technology. We can’t afford for this to happen.”
According to a report from Microsoft, the British Computer Society and Lancaster University Management School, more than 150,000 new graduates are needed every year to fill programming positions vacated by baby-boomer software developers, many of whom had decades of invaluable experience. Yet a disastrous decline in university course applications and student ability means only 20,000 students in computer science, information systems and software engineering are entering the workforce each year. With the software development industry ploughing £20 billion into the UK’s coffers each year, the skills shortfall ought to be enough to give Gordon Brown cause for concern.
Industry and education experts agree on the main causes for the drop in interest in computer-centric degrees: the lingering doom that surrounded the dotcom’s burst bubble, and regular horror stories about IT jobs disappearing to India and other foreign hotspots. The British Computer Society believes that by 2010 more than 100,000 IT and software jobs will have been offshored from the UK.
The British child appears to have fallen out of love with the computer – at least as a tool for programming – so what can be done to reverse this trend and put the British teenager back at the top of the techie pile?
The first hurdle in making sense of the anomalies in this decline – we’re constantly told, after all, that children love IT and are part of the first real silicon generation – is to understand the very different purposes of the various parties involved. Schools prepare pupils to enter the general workforce or higher education; universities want academic thinkers with strong maths skills; industry wants ready-made workers who don’t require expensive training. And all these stakeholders have different thoughts on how future professionals should be educated.
The current thinking in the world of business, where systems analysts, project managers and IT buyers rub shoulders with the marketing departments, is that a broad knowledge base is best. “Students need to have a greater understanding of the various applications to which IT applies. Just knowing the computing side of things isn’t enough if they don’t also understand the business ideas behind those systems,” said Andrew McGettrick, vice president of the British Computer Society. These are very different from the skills of the average software development graduate or pure thinkers in computer sciences.