Firms face university challenge in identifying the best IT graduates

For employers trying to decide which are the best universities for developing high quality IT graduates the selection can be...

For employers trying to decide which are the best universities for developing high quality IT graduates the selection can be confusing.

There are an enormous range of IT degrees with an array of titles and widely varying content. And what is a good IT degree for one employer may not be so for another organisation.

League tables are only part of the picture, said Wendy Hall, head of electronics and computer science at Southampton University, which ranks itself as one of the UK's top five IT universities.

An attempt by Adrian Low, an academic at Staffordshire University, to produce a guide to the best universities for IT produced a flurry of complaints from several high-profile universities that his findings did not accurately reflect their departments' standing.

Hall, who has just stepped down as president of the BCS, advises businesses to think carefully about the sort of graduates they need before attempting to make any decisions.

Many employers find the distinction between computer science and IT degrees confusing, she said. The two types of degree produce graduates with very different skills and specialisms.

In general, computer science degrees are more mathematically based and have a strong focus on programming. IT degrees tend to be more management and business orientated.

"A company such as IBM is looking for systems developers who will be developing the next generation of programming languages. A user company will want someone who can work with current systems," Hall said.

Ollie Ross, head of research at corporate user group Tif, criticised universities for failing to emphasise these softer skills. "Some computing courses are so focused on the computing side that communications skills are just not included - they need to be," she said.

Ken France, an interim IT director with experience in a range of companies, said he would like to see more universities teaching students about the way IT is used in different industries to improve their understanding of business.

Looking for BCS and IEE accredited courses offers employers a good indicator that they cover softer issues, such as ethics, team working and business.

"There is an increased need for softer business and professional skills. The universities are beginning to respond to that. The old polytechnics are often very keen to offer flexible courses and change their curriculum," said Terry Watts, chief operating officer of training body E-skills UK.

Employers should look at the A-level results universities require from students, he said. "If they say they only want 3Bs, for example, that is a good indication they are highly regarded by the market," Watts said.

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