Oil and Vinegar: Why we must spice up ICT education

When Dick Vinegar questioned the value of current University ICT courses, citing the views of his grandson, he kicked open a hornets nest. I was therefore delighted to offer a guest blog to the Council of Professors and Heads of Computing to explain why he was both right and wrong.


Dick Vinegar, questioned the value of throwing money or tax breaks at academia, suggesting that the programmes being offered by academia are boring, whereas the activities being undertaken by youngsters using social networking and digital multimedia tools at home, and socially with friends, are creative. While vinegar is meant to be tart, it is also meant to be balanced (as per the Chinese pantheistic representation  – “The Vinegar Tasters”), and this comment is anything but balanced! So let’s try to correct a few of the misconceptions:


Firstly the notion of throwing money at academia, which Dick regards as wasted, is so ludicrous as to be laughable, the issue is actually to try to get back some of the funds that have been removed from the sector in the last few years! As a result of banding changes and the non-recognition of Computing as either vulnerable or as a STEM subject needing support, the government, through the Funding Council, has removed over £100 million per year from the HE Computing budget, equivalent to £1 million out of the annual budget for every HE Computing department in the country – mysteriously that doesn’t feel like money being thrown at academia! The reduction in student numbers takes the same amount again out of the sector, and it is highly unlikely that we will be able to maintain the existing levels of research and numbers of high-quality academic staff in this scenario – Dick may regard this as a justified outcome for not exciting his grandson, but UK HE Computing teaching and research is currently regarded as world-leading. It is a significant earner for the UK in the global economy and damaging the basis of that would appear to be self-defeating.


Secondly, as far as tax-breaks are concerned, these are not to provide more money for academia, the intention is to encourage industry to invest in education for staff, and to make it easier for individuals to develop their skills and stay abreast of what is a rapidly and constantly changing industry. All of our major international competitors provide tax incentives to encourage industrial investment in tertiary education, only the UK takes the view that industry and individuals should be prepared to both pay for it and be taxed on that payment, even if it is of significant importance and value to UK plc.


The Leitch Review, which is much quoted in these matters, envisaged a greater level of industrial involvement in University courses and CPD (Continuing Professional Development) programmes, but it based this on models that exist in countries that offer tax incentives of the type we champion. More importantly, Leitch identified that in 2020 we need at least 40% of our workforce to be degree-level qualified, against around 25% currently, but 70% of the workforce in 2020 have already completed their education – if we are to achieve this growth and, as a result, be competitive in the global marketplace, we must find ways of encouraging corporate and individual engagement, and tax incentives are clearly one way to do this.


Thirdly, Dick’s major informant on this matter is his 14 year old grandson, which suggests that, far from commenting on University courses, his information actually reflects the curriculum being offered in High Schools. In fact, this would fit very well with a number of reports in recent years that have commented on the conflation of the ICT curriculum in the early years of High School with the Computing curriculum, with the result that pupils are turned off Computing, regarding it as being just Microsoft Office and document skills, rather than any of the many interesting and creative tools and skills that are available.


Once these young people are convinced that the subject is boring they turn away from it in droves, and the evidence from the recently-published CPHC (Council of Professors and Heads of Computing) report is that this has resulted in a more than 50% decline in pupils taking A-level Computing. Previous reports by CPHC, e-skills UK and Microsoft also reinforce the view that High School pupils find Computing boring, and call for major changes in the way that Computing is taught and the need to distinguish between the ICT basic skills agenda and GCSE and A-level Computing.


A new report just published by CRAC, which looks at the attitudes of University students studying Computing, and those studying other subjects, who intend to work in the IT industry, is also very revealing. The CRAC report confirms that students find Computing boring, but it is those students studying other subjects who intend to work in the IT industry who hold that view, and most of them want to work in IT management. Computing students don’t find their subject boring (and we get lots of overseas students who would echo that thought, Dick!), and most of them want to work in the industry, but unfortunately they don’t want to work in management!


Finally, whilst we applaud Dick’s grandson for involving himself in creative activities, and engaging with software tools and environments that encourage that creativity, there are significant benefits to having that creativity educated and channelled. If there’s anything that the current plethora of open audition talent shows infesting our airwaves have demonstrated, it is that “diamonds in the rough” are few and far between, and believing that you’re creative and talented isn’t actually the same as realising that talent. Interestingly, the winners of these shows, almost without exception, have long histories of training and development behind them, exactly the approach we would recommend.

So, it seems we have several issues to deal with. We would strongly disagree with Dick Vinegar that the original proposal to support greater academia-industry collaboration and provide tax breaks is in any sense wrong. However, we do also need to look at the means to make the industry more appealing and exciting to High School pupils, so a campaign to redevelop the High School curriculum needs to be developed and supported. We also need to find a way to get more direct input from industry and the Universities into the High Schools to excite pupils about the subject, and to ensure that those teaching in the schools are up-to-date, well-qualified and inspiring.


This is a challenging agenda as the High School sector outnumbers Universities by around 40 to 1, so we can’t just send academic staff into High Schools, and industry has work to do so can’t just send their staff into schools either, but there are a variety of projects in this area, and more work needs to be done.


This also ties up with Philip Virgo’s earlier comments about trying to get all of the UK workforce’s IT skills up-to-date and so fits with the need to develop CPD and reskilling courses for those already working in industry.


We also need to address the agenda being promoted by e-skills UK, to encourage the development of business skills and knowledge in our technical graduates, so more of them will make the move into management, with the result that UK IT management becomes more technically knowledgeable and we are able to build on our current position of strength in this sector.


However, while Dick Vinegar retires to Tunbridge Wells to diss his gruntle, we have a very real and pressing problem in the UK, the current decline in students coming into HE Computing means that we cannot maintain our current lead in world terms in Computing research and education, and as a result the global competitiveness of the UK knowledge economy, the major plank of government economic planning and thinking, is seriously compromised.


If we can’t change this picture soon, we won’t have to complain about third-world countries stealing our jobs and sending their migrants here, the jobs will be gone and so will the money!


Lachlan MacKinnon & Liz Bacon (real names), CPHC.

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