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I think that the incoming president of The British Computer Society (BCS), Professor Nigel Shadbolt, is right to highlight the fact that demand for IT graduates is rising at a time that supply is falling.
Professor Shadbolt, who holds the chair in Artificial Intelligence in the School of Electronics and Computer Science at Southampton University, predicts that this shortfall will lead to a serious skills crisis in the IT profession, which will have a serious impact on the health of the United Kingdom's economy as it transitions to one based on knowledge. He is absolutely right.
However, I think the problem is that much of computing is simply either right or wrong. It is difficult for a student in a software engineering module to hide the fact that their program simply does not work.
I believe that the root of the problem lies in the increasingly performance-led further education sector. Focusing on performance is not necessarily a bad thing, but I do believe that it places considerable pressure on further education colleges to ensure students are successful regardless of their ability or standard. I believe that many further education colleges funnel their students into programmes where success is much more likely. It is much easier to give students the "benefit of doubt" on subjective courses than those that have an objective measure of success, so this has the effect of reducing the number of those eligible to apply to programmes such as computer science at university level.
I believe there is evidence to support this view. I've already recently noted that there are less students taking IT related A levels. Furthermore, many science based degrees are currently suffering poor recruitment and indeed some science-based departments are being forced to close because of a lack of students. Indeed, Professor Shadbold has given the BBC access to previously unpublished research that shows that numbers applying to computer science courses is dropping alarmingly. In contrast, programmes that are more subjective such as business are attracting large numbers of students.
Also, I am continually reading that more and more students are achieving better and higher grades at O and A level while at the same time being told that their levels of literacy and numeracy are at an all time low. I hear employers saying that, despite these high grades, their employees are more poorly equipped for work than ever before. It really simply doesn't add up.
Indeed, my own experience of lecturing in higher education over the past decade supports the fact that numeracy and literacy levels are falling alarmingly and, dare I say it, that I encounter more and more students who expect their poor work to be given the benefit of the doubt as a matter of course. These attitudes and expectations must have been developed at an earlier stage in their education.
I believe the pressures placed on further education colleges also filters down into the assessment processes, where opinion and ideas are much more easily given the benefit of the doubt by lecturers faced with the need to hit tough (and probably unrealistic) targets in order to retain their posts. (I suspect many are made aware that if their programmes do not recruit, their services won't be required.)
It is curious to note that increased O and A level success rates have followed increased use of coursework as an assessment mechanism. I overheard two girls in a cafe in Exeter recently discussing the relative merits of their A level courses. One was clearly facing an onslaught of second year exams, the other had mainly been assessed by coursework and seemed much more relaxed. There was no doubt that this girl thought that her lecturer was brilliant. She had submitted many pieces of work, which had all been reviewed with helpful suggestions that had precisely spelt out how to attain the top grades. It seemed that this process had been somewhat iterative. She kept submitting and revising work until she finally got the grade she desired.
If you were a student, faced with the need to choose a degree course and knowing that you would have huge debts at the end of the three years, which sort of programme would you choose? One that had a much higher success rate or one that was much lower?
I am also a little worried to read that the government is considering giving further education colleges the right to award degrees, which apparently was hinted at in the recent Queen's Speech. I know this has been welcomed in some quarters, but it still worries me.
Although the government has not released much information about this new proposal, what has already been made clear is that underperforming principals would be removed if FE colleges were given the right to award degrees. However, very little has been said about how the standards themselves would be maintained.
It is worth noting that universities have much lower pass rates than further education colleges and that the government has set a national target for 50% of people under 30 to hold degrees by 2010.
Returning to the needs of the IT profession, I believe that although we need many more suitably qualified graduates to enter the profession, we must ensure that they have degrees that are of a high standard.
I believe for the UK economy to remain healthy over the long term we must first look to maintain and improve our high educational standards across the board before we try and increase numbers. We must ensure that one degree is as tough as another, regardless of the discipline involved. If not, we will encourage our students to take degrees they perceive to be easier rather than those that offer good employment prospects.
And lowering the bar to increase the numbers? It will just destroy confidence in our educational system and profoundly damage our ability to compete in a knowledge-based world.