UK could lose IT lead over poor teaching conditions

The UK IT industry is in "grave danger" of losing its top-ranking position in higher education and research, due to poor pay and...

The UK IT industry is in "grave danger" of losing its top-ranking position in higher education and research, due to poor pay and working conditions in universities. So says a briefing document for MPs by BCS chief executive Judith Scott, who fears that the impact could be felt for decades, writes John Kavanagh.

"In the second half of the 20th century the UK was a leading researcher and educator of well-qualified IT professionals," says the briefing document, entitled Academic Crisis in Computing. "This enabled the UK to develop a thriving high-tech sector and traditional businesses that applied technology for competitive advantage."

But it continues, "We are in grave danger of losing our competitive edge. Changes over the last five years in higher education, together with the enormous explosion in demand for skilled IT staff, has created a looming crisis in higher education computing departments, the effect of which may be felt for many decades."

IT graduates can now start on salaries similar to those of their senior lecturers. In addition, because of the job prospects more people are starting IT degrees. This increases the demands made on teachers and resources.

But while universities are attracting more students, they are becoming increasingly unattractive as places of employment.

"All departments report difficulty in recruiting PhD students. Some departments have vacancies unfilled for months, if not years. There is worrying concern that the vast majority of computing academics are over 40.

"The proportion of appointments from outside the European Union is reported to be rising, compounding the demands on those responsible for research programmes. Filling teaching posts with people whose knowledge of English is limited further depresses quality."

The impact of all this is spelled out in no uncertain terms. "We are no longer developing academics who will be the underpinning of the UK economy, providing valuable research and competent teaching," says the briefing.

"If this is allowed to continue, the UK will be starved of new ideas and its thriving high-tech sector will wither.

"Teaching quality will decline. Word will get out at school level, and the brightest students will avoid computing. Graduates are likely to be of poorer quality, and the teaching will fall short of that in other Western democracies. Already there is some evidence of this trend, with many companies outsourcing work to India, for example, where there are good academic standards and labour is comparatively cheap."

The briefing concludes, "This cannot be ignored: the risks are far too great. In 20 years we could have computing departments with no staff.

"It is too late to avoid all the problems, but the longer we leave it, the harder it will be to solve them. The UK risks throwing away its essential IT capacity."

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