Computer science departments must act quickly to meet the changing skills needs of the dynamic IT sector or risk a takeover from business schools. This would widen the IT skills gap and threaten future leadership in the industry.
Universities have been criticised for not producing work-ready IT graduates, particularly with business awareness skills. The IT and Telecoms sector council E-Skills UK has raised concerns over a shortage of IT professionals and falling numbers of students on computer science courses nationally.
Large IT employers had previously been able to recruit technically able graduates and develop their vocational abilities. However, as the sector becomes more fragmented, smaller employers do not have the resources and so require graduates who can perform useful work immediately.
Furthermore, the IT industry has shifted from providing technical services to encompassing business services. This has increased the need for graduates to posses business and technological skills.
A large proportion of computer science university courses have not adapted to these changes, remaining theoretical and technological in their nature. The financial and reputation benefits gained from pursuing "traditional" research transfers into what students are taught. Little attention is given to the development of leadership roles in the IT industry. A technical PhD is clearly not what is called for.
A transformed IT industry presents business schools with the opportunity to take over university computer science departments, for a number of reasons.
- Increased demand for degrees that directly relate to business-facing IT roles. This is well matched by business school research, which is easily aligned to the strategic issues that the IT industry faces.
- Business schools have incentives to enter the IT-business interface, providing MBAs and executive education. IT undergraduates attract more funding than business students, and leadership development is a lucrative activity.
Skills gap consequences
The impact of such a takeover would have long-term negative consequences on the IT sector's skills gap, which arises from a need for professionals who can deliver technological solutions to business problems. Since technical and business skills are equally important, a move towards primarily business-focused education will simply replace one deficit with another. The sector would lose out on key technical skills, most importantly:
- Socio-technical aspects of IT interventions are not considered in a generalist MBA, preventing a balanced view of technological and business considerations.
- The deep technical understanding to foresee and adapt to technological developments and innovations crucial to keep UK businesses globally competitive.
What the sector can do
Computer science departments must act now. They must build on their success liaising with industry technologists and engage in depth with business-facing professionals. They must not shun business schools but rather work with, and learn from, them. The business models that drive the IT industry and professionalism need to be fully embedded into curricular at all levels, and a conscious effort must be made in developing future leaders.
The industry providing mentoring and role models to students would be an excellent start, and would widen the availability of industry placements.
Engaging more widely with industry and the IT profession is crucial to providing work ready graduates, and future leaders. If they do not, others will and we will all be the poorer for that.
Andrew Tuson is head of the department of computing at City University London.
This was first published in June 2008