Tech & Work

Are universities failing computer science students?

Businesses ask why graduates in the UK enter the jobs market without the required technology skills, while the US manages to produce IT workers ready-made for the industry.

"Our education system in the UK was created 100 years ago to service an empire economy, not a business economy."

David Richards, CEO and co-founder of WANdisco, is voicing his frustration that computer science students graduate from UK universities with few of the skills he needs at his business.

"We still have bright intelligent people but we have to accept if we take graduates, we pretty much have to train them ourselves," he said.

Distributed computing specialist WANdisco employs a range of software engineers and developers, particularly Java programmers, for its work with the Hadoop framework. In contrast, WANdisco's experience of recruiting for these roles in the US has been far more positive.

"In the US the education system is better," Richards said.

"We can take graduates from universities and they are immediately productive on core Hadoop development. Not just on specifics but all the stuff you need around the edges as well. They come ready-made, right off the conveyor belt.

"For example, we had a guy whose first job from university was looking after the main Hadoop clusters at eBay. We're talking about a kid here."

Are the wrong skills fuelling unemployment among comp-sci grads?

Questions have long been asked in the UK about why computer science graduates are the most likely of any university leavers to be unemployed, with more than 14 percent of comp-sci graduates out of work six months after graduation - particularly when companies perennially complain about shortages of IT skills.

Some industry figures have suggested the UK has offshored many of the roles that would have given graduates their start on the career ladder - leaving only positions that require several years' career experience.

Richards believes that driving down unemployment will require a closer link between universities and employers in the UK - similar to what exists in the US.

"It's the responsibility of the educational establishment to turn out graduates who are ready-made with the skills. It's not a shortage of jobs.

"There is a reason that Silicon Valley exists and it's really because of the university system. The universities are very close to the employers. Lecturers at Stanford go off and create companies."

Alongside the high-profile attempt to create a tech hub in London, the so-called Silicon Roundabout, Richards said more effort should be focused on building enterprise parks around the UK's research centres.

"The clusters really should occur around research and educational institutions and not around a roundabout."

Richards is not alone in the IT industry in voicing his concerns about the lack of appropriate skills among job applicants.

Last year Eben Upton, one of the co-creators of the $35 Raspberry Pi Linux board, said he had witnessed the shortfall in IT-related skills first hand. In his day job Upton is a system-on-a-chip architect at processor designer Broadcom.

"It's an industry with a lot of niches and when I look around at Broadcom there aren't enough guys in their 20s. There should be the same ratio of guys in their 30s to guys in their 20s, but there are a lot more guys in their 30s. It's not a dying industry yet but if we carry on, we'll probably fall below a critical mass and we won't be sustainable anymore," he said.

Dr Iain Phillips is former chairman of the Council of Professors and Heads of Computing and a senior lecturer in computer science at Loughborough University. He said universities are working with business to try to more closely align teaching to industry requirements.

"There are a number universities that are trying to do something about this. We engage with organisations such as the e-skills, the National Centre for Universities and Business and individual universities through their own industrial liaison committees, to try to make their degrees more industry-focused.

"We have a very clear definition of what we think computer science is, but we try and get that to be informed by liaison with industry."

In an attempt to bridge the skills gap, the e-skills Sector Skills Council has created a degree programme called Technology Management for Business, with a curriculum based on feedback from industry.

But Phillips believes it is also important for universities to provide more than a grounding in the skills required by businesses today.

"There is a lot of high-quality computer science research going on at universities that could well influence industry but industry wouldn't realise it until it's gone through the research process. There's more to life at a university than simply training students for industry, the purpose of a university is to advance the subject as well.

"Chances are this issue will always be a concern because in our industry things are moving so fast. Using the example of Hadoop, going back five years ago [WANdisco's David Richards] wouldn't have wanted a Hadoop operator because that sort of thing didn't exist at that level. Who knows what's going to be the next thing in five years' time?

"The changes are quite rapid. What we like to think is that we create graduates who can work through those changes, as well as graduates who can work immediately in the current environment."


Nick Heath is chief reporter for TechRepublic. He writes about the technology that IT decision makers need to know about, and the latest happenings in the European tech scene.

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