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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I suspect that Lachlan and I have more oil than vinegar than he thinks in the interplay of our ideas about skills and the future of IT courses at Universities.

My dismissive comment about the relationship between academia and industry, was because I have heard too many good intentions about this in the last ten years, and compare them with the almost incestuous academic/industrial cooperation half a century ago in the Golden Age of Colossus, Mark One Star, Atlas and Leo. You lot must learn how to walk the walk, not just talk the talk. Of course academia and industry should get closer than they are at present. My grumble is that you are not doing it as well as your forefathers did before you.

You equate my grandson’s wish for creativity with a Bebo, Facebook addiction. You are wrong. He does more than that. He tells me he has stopped doing ICT, because he was getting no “new skills”. Nor are his friends who have persevered with ICT GSE. When I asked him whether he wants to do “computer science” at University, or join the IT industry, his response was “aargh”. Yet he insists that whatever career he adopts must be computer-based. His current plan is naval architecture.

I suspect that there are thousands of teenagers like him, avid gamesplayers, on their computers from morning to night, who are your potential customers. Their relationship with computers is rather different from the raw material for your potential customers even 5 years ago. Have you considered how to appeal to them?

They may have been turned off by the GCSE curriculum, but that shouldn’t stop you devising new ways to recruit them. It should be a doddle. OK, it’s tough that the GCSE curriculum is not helping your enrolments at the moment, but that just means that you have to work smarter to grab them. People do switch subjects: I did myself, from History to Modern languages, because I felt that languages were more likely to get me a job.

As I said in my original comment, “Today, I sense more excitement and intellectual ferment about IT than I have experienced in 50 years. Why can't the establishment tap into the excitement?” Are your courses geared to the new world of mashups, video, GPS, convergence with mobile phones and fridges, TVs, red buttons, iPlayer, new media, politics 2.0 and so on? As your University specialises in games, you are probably more tuned in to all this than some of your academic colleagues, who, I suspect, unworthily, haven’t changed their views of what computers were all about since the ‘80s, when they were recruited.

I was worried, at a Westminster Media Forum conference last week (ably chaired by Philip) that one speaker said that an initiative to accredit University departments to teach games software had only found four universities accreditable – four in Scotland (including yours) and one in Wales. None in England. To me, games software has always been at the heart of software innovation and the user interface since Pong revolutionised graphics on PCs. So, it was also worrying to hear at the same conference that one games company last year recruited 27% of its entrants abroad. Maybe, Universities should take a hard look at what they are teaching.

So, you shoud’nt just blame the GCSE curriculum and the meanness of the Government for your loss of enrolment. You have also got to ask whether you can raise your game. As a vice-chancellor said brutally at a conference earlier this year: “people in my position have to decide whether to put money into Computer Science or Drama”.

You have a difficult task in improving the enrolment of new students. On one side, you have to transmit the excitement with the rigour. Someone said “Genius is 90% perspiration.”

Karen Price of e-Skills UK suggests that the subject should change its name from “ICT” or “computer science” to “creative technology”. I agree. “Computer” has become a turn-off word, and says nothing to the iPhone generation. “Technology” is more honest than “science”, and implies some rigour but is not a turn-off like “engineering”. “Creative” is a turn-on for people like my grandson, and is real because if we are not creative we go bust. Change the name of the ganme to "creative technology" and enrolments may go through the roof