When it comes to teaching IT, the UK’s education system is flawed. Despite today’s generation of students growing up with technology, the number pursuing further IT education is falling dramatically.
There has been a 33 per cent drop in ICT GCSE students in the past three years, a 33 per cent drop in numbers studying A-level ICT in the past six years and a huge 57 per cent drop in A-level computing students in the past eight years in England, according to a recent study by the Royal Society.
The problem of fewer young people studying IT has also been highlighted in recent months by Ofsted as well as many employers and universities.
“The biggest issue is the negative effect the current system will have on future careers in this sector,” said Margaret Sambell, head of strategy and planning at e-skills UK.
She said that 10 years ago, IT was more of a back-office function, but today IT and business strategy are inextricably linked.
The issue faced by employers is that the education system is not producing the mix of IT and business skills required. According to the Recruitment and Employment Confederation (REC), most in demand in the permanent market are Microsoft .Net skills, IT security skills and roles such as business analysts and systems architects or systems developers.
“Whereas it used to be: ‘Can you find me a .Net developer?’ now it's can you find me a .Net developer with oil and gas experience, or pharmaceuticals experience. If they have that sort of skill, they have a better chance of finding a job than somebody who hasn’t,” said Dave Pye, executive committee member of the REC’s technology sector group.
Sambell agreed that there has been a shift in the types of IT roles in the UK. “With globalisation, a lot of programming and testing work [which was the traditional route into the IT industry] is sourced overseas and the work in the UK is much more centred on business integration of technology,” she explained.
E-skills’ research shows that the roles that are most in demand are in IT management, strategy and planning, as are software professionals who can deliver business benefit from technology.
“That means the skills we need are more sophisticated than ever before because we need not only the deep technical capability but also people who know how to apply that to deliver business benefit, and that is quite challenging,” said Sambell.
“So as well as needing more people, we also need higher skills as well as a more complex blend of skills.”
Many people in the industry argue that the problem should be addressed at schools and colleges where students have their first experiences with IT, because this is where they are currently losing interest.
Universities are not convinced that IT and computer science qualifications at GCSE and A-level offer any sort of preparation for a career in IT. The University of Oxford’s Computer Science Department is more interested in students who possess logic skills, and encourages applicants to study maths A-level over any other subject.
“If you want to be a computer scientist, study maths,” said Andrew Ker, Oxford University lecturer in computer security.
“I am very worried about ICT and computing A-levels. It is obvious in candidates I interview that they do not motivate students to forge a career in computer science and I am not convinced that these courses actually teach ‘computer science’ at all,” he added.
Employers have also set out to improve IT education themselves. Fifty employers clubbed together five years ago to create a degree programme, in partnership with e-skills and 13 universities, called Information Technology Management for Business.
“Students on this course are learning how to manage technology projects as well as derive business benefits from technology. They are being snapped up by enterprises as they come out the other end. Businesses are taking these people into accelerated graduate programmes because they have these skills that employers find so valuable,” said Sambell.
But while the youth hold the key to the future of the industry, REC’s Pye said that, for the present, employers need to be careful not to overlook older IT workers, as they are often undervalued.
“There are a lot of older people in IT; people who are 50-plus with many important skills, but employers sometimes take youth over experience even when the latter would suit them better. They shouldn’t forget that experienced people can always pass on their knowledge to a younger generation,” he said.