As businesses endure the tough economic climate relying on technology to provide efficiencies and cost savings, many are calling on academia is to turn out IT-literate graduates with a grasp of business.
However, in a recent roundtable with participants from Manchester and Birmingham City Universities, Kingston University's IT student body, Microsoft and HP, it became clear businesses need to step up and interact with universities to get the best out of ICT and computer science graduates. Businesses also need to take advantage of IT training initiatives from educational establishments and industry.
Manchester University is a leading university which produces students who are technically competent, says Alexandria Walker, Manchester University's director of industrial studies, Advanced Professional Education in Computer Science (APECS).
“Our students have a very deep level of foundation for theoretical computer science, and I’m finding that the industry is showing a higher level of interest in those people. When I started out, we had eight students who were placed in companies. We now have 40 every year," Walker says.
Walker argues that this is because her computer science students are innovative as well as technically literate. “We are giving them creative skills and, because they are creative people, they innovate. We sometimes laugh that we are creating the next bunch of hackers. We wouldn’t be surprised to find from our first years that at least a third of them are running their own businesses alongside their studies.”
As part of the course, students are given foundational programming skills, encouraged to learn a computer language and then, for example, build a database or application from scratch. “With the very deep technical skills we give them, when we release them into the world, they learn very quickly,” says Walker.
Birmingham City University, on the other hand, has more of a vocational focus for its IT students, says Rehan Bhana, senior lecturer, IT academy manager. “Employability is a key driver and one of our key performance indicators. So, we work on applying the skills that students learn. We do cover the concepts and apply theory, and explain why you are going to implement a particular technology, but we also give them the technology to play with.”
“In terms of developing the softer business skills, we get the students to collaborate on problem-based projects that will be reviewed by industry partners such as HP or Oracle. It brings them to realise they have to develop communication, entrepreneurship and presentation,” says Bhana.
Peter Goring is a Kingston University student who founded the business-focused Geeks’ Society, which helps students improve their chances of finding employment. He says the key to encouraging innovation among ICT students is to get them to create a portfolio website from scratch using code rather than templates; and to develop their own software apps which they can showcase to potential employers.
“Explaining how to do things on a more hands-on basis is something they don’t do that well at Uni,” he says.
Manchester University’s Walker adds: “A group of our students set up their own Hack for Kindness 24-hour hackathon initiative, and we are funding their food, to encourage them. It shows innovation.”
Walker reiterated that encouraging creativity and initiative among students is essential to helping them be useful in business. “By the start of their first year, our students have to present on a problem-based project for which they had to teach themselves new skills. They also learn about computing ethics and look at large failed IT projects, such as the London Ambulance Brigade, so we are giving them business acumen.”
Bhana says Birmingham City had a group of students who turned their forensic security project into a data recovery business: “They found a niche and the University supports them by helping to take them to new marketplaces.”
Industry has a role in encouraging innovation among university students, says Lee Stott, academic evangelist at Microsoft. For example, Microsoft has developed a three-year programme called "BizSpark" for partner universities, which offers a start-up incubation unit and free software, mentoring and access to venture capital and companies.
Stott adds that Microsoft also has "DreamSpark" initiatives for both ICT and computer science degree students, to foster business skills among future computer science professionals and IT skills among the next generation of business administrators. DreamSpark is a set of free professional developer and design tools for students and educators, plus a teaching curriculum written for and delivered by academics.
Marc Waters, director of strategy at HP, argues: "Industry needs to step up a bit more and say what they want from academia, and get involved. Investment’s not just financial, it’s time as well.”
Waters gives an example of HP working with the University of West England to develop a Business Informatics degree, co-authored a third by HP and two thirds by the University. “That's the sort of role industry has to take. Our senior leadership team is down there delivering modules as part of that course and, as a significant employer of IT skills in the UK and Ireland, we know what we want.”
Birmingham City’s Bhana, says: “We collaborated with SAP and developed a programme on that basis, and previous to that we have continuously worked with Microsoft and Cisco from an ICT, rather than a computer science perspective, and that curriculum has been embedded into the undergraduate programme for a number of years.”
In addition, Bhana says a number of computer science students are developing apps that are feeding directly into a market which is more accessible to students than ever before, which enables them to create and publish their own apps and show off their skills to potential employers.
Engaging IT students in corporate social responsibility projects is a growing area, the panellists noted. This is something Walker’s students have been doing on their placements with the likes of IBM, HP and some of the big investment banks in the City. “One student was working with Fujitsu, which let them go out to a local school and tutor in maths.”
However, Walker adds: “One of the problems for universities and academia – and one thing they are frightened of – is the moral issue of tying ourselves in to a particular technology provider.”
She adds that Manchester is currently talking to 15 industrial partners and trying to find a way for all of them to work together, rather than give a small number of suppliers exclusive access to students.
Goring concurs: "From a student’s point of view, if I open a prospectus and see a computer science degree with a placement with HP, I know I’ve got potential job prospects once I’ve finished that degree. But from a moral perspective, if I saw my university became a supporter of HP or IBM, that’s a competition issue.”
Roundtable panellists saw opportunities to reskill the existing workforce of IT professionals in a number of areas which include cloud and security, business intelligence (BI) and managing the growing volume of unstructured business big data.
Manchester’s Walker says: “Twenty years ago, companies were very willing to send their people on training courses for specific skills. But now they are doing it themselves a lot of the time, using technical people within the company to produce online training documents, so people can train from their desks.”
“The easy way for organisations to retain people and not go through the cost of losing someone and rehiring is actually to train their staff,” agrees Microsoft’s IT evangelist, Simon May.
Bhana says Birmingham City University has seen an increase in demand from businesses for graduates with cloud-related skills. “Analytics is a huge area of demand and we have been working with organisations like SAP and Microsoft to embed into our courses security, data analytics, BI and the risks associated with working in the cloud.”
Stott says that on-demand cloud applications have made it cheaper for universities to teach applications such as enterprise resource planning (ERP) or customer relationship management (CRM), which in the past required system administrators and costly database management system (DBMS) infrastructures.
Finally, May adds that the cloud has enabled academics to carry out high performance computing in a cost-effective, agile and scalable way, accessing computing and storage when required. “This brings huge revenues in terms of bidding for research, but is also prestigious and leads to more research funding.”
In summary, the IT skills roundtable shows there are many opportunities for businesses to engage with educational providers, students and suppliers, and influence the sort of IT graduates they want to see. The common aim for all parties is to produce IT professionals who have the best technical and business skills, for the sake of the industry.