Is there a crisis in Australian ICT education? According to the recent Australian Computer Society (ACS) Statistical Compendium there may very well be.
The ACS found, by examining government figures, the number of domestic graduates completing tech-related courses fell 53 percent between 2003 and 2010.
“I think it’s a bit of a worry,” said John Ridge, chief executive of the ACS Foundation, which provides scholarships for students in ICT-related disciplines.
“In my view it’s something we definitely need to address."
One explanation for the dramatic drop was the bursting dotcom bubble at the beginning of the century.
Professor Leon Stirling, chair of the Australian Council of Deans of Information and Communications Technology (ACDICT) observed enrolments climbed in the years leading up to the bubble, and then plummeted precipitously over the next decade.
“People didn’t think there were going to be jobs, and so they stopped enrolling in the courses,” he said.
A perception problem?
However the crisis could be deeper than graduates being wary of ICT courses because of a lack of jobs. What it could come down to is the perception in the community ICT jobs are narrow in scope, and are simply focused on programming.
“There’s definitely a perception problem,” said Alan Patterson, Australian Computer Society chief executive. “There’s this idea ICT is just something you work in, rather than a career like medicine.”
Prof. Stirling has similar sentiments. “People have difficulty imagining what an ICT career is like,” he said.
“There are more skills to it than simply programming. Communications and strategic planning are also vital skills.”
There’s also the question of whether the skills taught at university are matched with the requirements of the marketplace.
According to Prof. Stirling, app development, big data and roles in the consulting industry are going to be the hot areas over the next five years, yet only a handful of institutions are offering courses in those areas.
“I would prefer computing courses to be more proactive regarding new technologies,” he said. “And I would like it if they were able to respond faster to the needs of the marketplace.”
The Australian Government has recognised the need to an appropriately skilled ICT workforce, while also noting the number of graduates commencing ICT courses is finally moving up.
“It should be noted that there has been a rise in the number of commencements in ICT disciplines of 5.7 per cent increase from 2007 to 19,267 in 2011,” said a spokesperson for the Minister for Tertiary Education and Skills, Senator Chris Evans.
On November 21, the Government is hosting a forum to consider some of the issues affecting education and training in the ICT industry, factors impacting skills shortages, and options for the future, the spokesperson said.
However, as the ACS’ Patterson observes, there’s a long lead time involved in creating courses to respond to market demand. It’s not something happening overnight.
Until then, the crisis — whether it’s short term, or something more entrenched — will continue. And the perception of ICT as a game for desk jockeys, will march in lock-step.