The current state of IT education in the UK

Posted: 16 June 2016
Author: Mark Hurren

In the past few years, there have been news headlines left, right and centre warning about the IT skills gap in the UK, and more specifically about the worrisome state of IT education in the country. The commonly accepted wisdom is that many tech firms simply can’t find sufficiently skilled IT graduates from the UK’s own talent pool, and that our businesses are having to plug the skills gap with tech talent sourced from overseas – particularly Eastern European nations, which have a reputation for churning out top-tier computer science graduates.

There’s undeniably a problem to be addressed; a 2013 House of Lords report stated that “the standard of computer science educational curriculum has steadily declined at all levels through from school to university over the past 10–15 years” and warned that the widening skills gap would take its toll on UK business.

More recently, a report by the parliamentary Science and Technology Committee stated that the skills gap currently costs the UK £63 billion a year in lost GDP, and recommended that immigration laws should be relaxed to make it easier for British firms to hire talent from outside the European Union.

A shortage of job-ready IT candidates

There is a sense that the issue is not so much that UK universities and colleges just aren’t turning out sufficient numbers of IT graduates; rather, employers are finding that often UK tech graduates simply aren’t equipped with the skills they need to enter the workplace.

Last year, Trainline’s chief technology officer Mark Holt remarked on the “dearth of talent” in the UK market and, more specifically, the shortage of “really talented” developers. Ross Fraser, EMC’s country manager for the UK and Ireland, recently highlighted the same problem: “Graduates still aren’t arriving on the market ‘business-ready’ and need rapid training to make them useful and effective to the business.”

So where does the problem lie and what needs to be done to turn things around?

There’s certainly a convincing argument that the issues really begin at school level. Despite a number of recent initiatives to introduce school-age children to coding, there’s still a very real sense that the standard of IT education in British schools is lacking, and has been for years. The failings would seem to lie in both the curriculum, and with a lack of relevant skills and knowledge in those teaching the subjects in schools – according to a BCS study in 2011, only three out of the 28,787 teachers who qualified in the previous year held a degree in computing.

Simply graduating isn’t enough anymore

While schools may be failing to engender an interest and grounding in IT subjects amongst British children, the problems clearly also extend to university level, where even graduates leaving with a first-class honours degree may lack the practical skills to make them attractive to prospective employers.

Why is this?

The lack of a standardised curriculum may be one factor; computer science graduates from different universities may enter the jobs market with markedly different sets of skills, knowledge and expectations.

Anecdotally, it seems that IT graduates from Eastern Europe and the Baltic states come to the market with a broader skills base and a demonstrable extracurricular enthusiasm for developing and demonstrating their tech skills, whether that’s in the form of an online portfolio, coding samples on GitHub, or evidence of relevant work placements or internships.

It seems likely that educational institutions in these nations (many of which have longstanding reputations for excellence in science and tech fields) encourage this sort of mindset and practice in their students, actually preparing them for a career path in IT to a degree that UK universities perhaps don’t.

A greater need for graduate training programmes

Ultimately, if IT education and the skills gap in the UK don’t improve, it will be our tech businesses that will suffer, so perhaps it’s there that the solution lies?

While some employers do offer IT graduate training programmes, there needs to be more collaboration between tech employers – of all sizes – and academic universities. This can only be a win-win scenario: producing top-quality graduates with the right knowledge, skills and abilities to stand out from the crowd and compete with overseas talent will directly benefit the British tech industry and the wider economy, and also improve the reputation of our universities as producers of world-class IT talent.

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