Higher education and the great computing dilemma

Computing students - coders without a clue? pic: Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory

Aaron Lee investigates why university computing courses are failing to produce skilled graduates.

Demand has never been higher. From banks to broadcasters, chipmakers to charities, organisations are desperate to hire skilled computing graduates. They need database builders, software engineers, problem solvers; a legion of grafters with the right technical knowhow.

It’s ironic, then, that such a high proportion of computing graduates are unemployed. Following criticism by Google, the Royal Society and other professionals, the government has called for a drastic overhaul of computing education in schools. Harder to definite is how much responsibility for Britain’s current computing skills crisis rests with higher education courses.

Figures from the HESA show 2010 computer science graduates have the highest unemployment rate of any undergraduate degree (14.7 per cent). Peter McOwan, professor of computer science at Queen Mary, argues that HESA data is misleading because it combines a range of degrees under the computer science heading, including “less technical programmes”. Disagreements over course classification further complicate the situation, but it’s a fact that competent maths skills are a requisite.

Though A-Level maths is desirable, Queen Mary accepts computer science entrants with GCSE maths as a minimum, because, McOwan says, the maths needed in computing is: “Often quite different from the maths in A-Level so we tend to teach the relevant maths and its context”.

Andy Thomason, lecturer in computing at Goldsmiths College, agrees: “Computer science shares many of the elements of maths and physics, but is not a straight subset. Though students will find it much easier with solid maths and science skills as the methodology and rigour is the same.”

While the level of maths or science that students need for computer science may be variable, there is a strong correlation between the employability of graduates and these core skills. The 2011 Livingstone-Hope review for the video games and visual effects industries identified that graduates from non-specialist STEM courses, including physics, maths and computer science, were “more highly valued” by employers than those from specialist courses.

The diversification of computing courses, as well as computing-related job openings, has split the number of graduates going into STEM-classified occupations. Goldsmiths has a solid proportion of graduates going into skilled technical positions in the games industry. Queen Mary claims almost three-quarters of its graduates obtain jobs in the software industry, some as engineers, but a number of them as analysts and consultants.

Ravensbourne’s new web media course is representative of a growing number of hybrid or specialist courses. Of the two A-Levels desired, maths or science are not strict requirements. Instead the college admits through portfolio. There haven’t been any graduates yet, but one student has already been given the lead role in a £50,000 project to create an app for the Tate. Subject leader James Morris is quick to defend his course against critic claim these courses are diluting computing education: “It’s a creative course, not computer science… There is too much division between creatives who don’t understand technology, and technologists who aren’t creative. We’re trying to bring the two together.”

Indeed, creativity and the skill to apply it, do concern employers. Many of the senior members working in the service and entertainment industries grew up during the era of ‘bedroom coders’, and speak fondly of the BBC Micro and the culture of “tinkering” that they believe computing courses today have lost.

Dan Crow, CTO of Songkick, is one such veteran: “I would like to see more entrepreneurialism being encouraged in computer science courses. We need students who combine a deep technical understanding and a passion for creating great products and businesses. When I was studying in the late 80s the idea of solving business problems with technology was rarely discussed. In the US, universities, like Stanford, actively encourage their students to start their own businesses and change the world.”

In the courses we looked at in east London, academics recognised the need for experimentation as well as entrepreneurship. Queen Mary students distribute their own smartphone apps as part of the university’s QApps initiative, and some have even started their own companies. Goldsmiths’ students are set tasks incorporating entrepreneurial values. And Ravensbourne has incubation facilities on-site in Greenwich for the purpose of teaching students to be entrepreneurial.

Evidently, businesses want graduates to have a multiplicity of skills, analytical and artistic, commercial and collaborative. But the problem for course leaders, says McOwan, is that computing is a “massively changing subject area”.

“Unlike geography, chemistry or physics where you can do something fairly regular year after year, technology is shooting along into the future so fast that it’s difficult to update courses to keep in line,” he says.

Still, experience is king, and this above all is what businesses feel courses should focus on.

Dave Bailey, CEO of game developer MediaTonic, points out: “We look for practical examples, a deep understanding of [programming paradigms] and of the latest practices and technologies. All our developers have also demonstrated an ability to learn and grow under their own initiative outside of the education system.”

In fact, demonstrating the use of practical skills is of the utmost importance for Shutl CEO, Tom Allason: “Shutl don’t really care if an engineering applicant has a university degree. What we care more about is practical knowledge and experience. What programming languages, applications, etc, do they know and what have they built?

“Universities and students should be looking at the practical skills that employers are looking for and make sure that those skills are being taught. Learning at secondary school would mean engineers would be more experienced by the time they get to the job market – experience is important.”

Turning around Britain’s computing courses will take persistence and cooperation, starting by encouraging more creative thinking in maths classes to attract bright students into computing, and closer communication between academics and industry.

“Writing computer programmes is about the most creative thing you can do. It’s completely unlimited by anything accept your imagination,” Crow says. “We need to do a better job of helping people understand just how exciting it can be to start with a blank screen and end up with something that really affects people’s lives.”

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