Thought for the day: Top-up fees will cause a brain drain

University top-up fees will deter students from choosing expensive IT courses, says Colin Beveridge.


Only one in six IT graduates opt to work in their chosen field. University top-up fees will discourage students from choosing expensive IT courses altogether, says Colin Beveridge.



Like it or not, we are about to be dragged, kicking and screaming, into the brave new world of university “top-up” fees and variable pricing for degree courses.

Future generations of school-leavers will now have to decide exactly how much they want to invest in their tertiary education and balance the overall cost against their ambitions and future ability to pay.

So, dear reader, if you were 18 again, how much would you want to shell out for an IT degree? What is an IT qualification really worth? This question intrigues me for a number of reasons.

First, I have found that only a relatively small proportion of the IT community have relevant computing degrees. We appear to have far more non-relevant graduates - which is why I wonder whether or not the next generation of “topped-up” students would be best advised to study classics, archaeology, or botany, instead of advanced computer science if they aspire to the ranks of the IT profession, because that’s exactly what their predecessors have done - irrelevant study has never been a barrier to entry.

I’ll bet that everybody in IT knows at least two or three colleagues who have fallen into computing accidentally, either through serendipity or unplanned opportunity. No doubt other professions follow a similar almost random career pattern. Perhaps that’s why we use the term “career” – which can also describe a mad, uncontrolled, headlong dash into uncertainty.

So, if it comes down to a question of degree pricing, a cheaper non-computing option may well be just as valuable in the long term as a more expensive, more specialised computing course.

Of course, this may not be so much of a problem in the “topped-up” world because we are already experiencing a fall-off in demand for IT-related courses. Despite the much-vaunted skills crisis, fewer school-leavers seem to be attracted to a computer career. This trend may lead educational institutions to mark down the price of computing degrees in a bid to keep their enrolment numbers up to a sustainable level.

Which leads me nicely to the next paradox. We already have a very high proportion of IT graduates who do not enter IT employment. Eighteen months ago, the UK e-skills summit heard that 30,000 students register for IT courses each year – but only 5,000 graduates from those courses subsequently take IT jobs. That’s only one in six relevant graduates – quite a scary number.

So again, I must ask, what will an IT degree be worth? This question is especially if we don’t address the problem of ageism in the IT department, which severely limits the earning longevity of an increasing number of IT staff.

Once top-up fees are in place, I believe that this will become a growing problem as students become fully aware of the long-term trade-off between cost and benefit.

Of course, it might not be too long before our universities adopt a completely commercial stance and introduce special offers to attract students to the less popular courses and institutions.

Perhaps in a year or two we will find “Buy one, get one free” offers on the UCAS website, or find that university job fairs are more like Sunday morning at Petticoat Lane, with the hallowed halls of academia ringing to the shrill cries of “get yer luvverly BSc here…”

What do you think?

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Colin Beveridge is an independent consultant and leading commentator on technology management issues. He can be contacted at [email protected]

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