Shadbolt review: universities must work closer with employers to improve computer science

Some highly selective institutions offer worse employment outcomes than less selective ones, government-commissioned report finds

May 16, 2016
Computer programmer coding on laptop

Computer science was more or less born in the UK – from the very idea of computers and programming pioneered by Charles Babbage and Ada Lovelace in the 19th century to the extraordinary achievements of Alan Turing, Tommy Flowers and others at Bletchley Park in the 20th century.

In the 21st century, UK computer science graduates are a vital part of the success of companies both large and small and organisations both public and private. Yet there is a worrying disconnect between the supply and demand for computer science skills that seriously threatens this legacy and could undermine the UKs ambition to be the world’s leading digital economy.

At first glance, concerns about the UKs ability to deliver seem overblown. With 90 out of 130 publicly funded institutions teaching computer science courses of various types, it is one of the most popular options in the whole of the science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) sector – in fact in each of the past six years, more undergraduates have begun a degree in computer sciences than in physics, chemistry and mathematics combined.

However, one government-commissioned report predicts that by 2022 some 518,000 additional workers will be needed to fill the most skilled roles in digital industries. This is three times the number of computer science graduates produced in the past 10 years and, understandably, many employers are warning of ongoing skills shortages in digital professions.

But with such high demand for computer scientists, why are 11.7 per cent of UK computer science graduates unemployed six months after leaving university?

Such poor employment outcomes – relative to other STEM disciplines – are of real concern to British businesses, and are why the government asked me to review what lies behind them and what we can do to reverse the trend.

My report, published today, reveals large variation in graduate employment outcomes across the full spectrum of our universities. Some universities had virtually no unemployment among their cohorts. Some universities that require high exam grades for entry had worse employment outcomes than those with lower entry levels. The social background and characteristics of students make a difference to their job prospects, but just as important is the quality and structure of their course. We should also consider the issue of gender inequality between students of computer science.

Read Times Higher Education's feature on computer science from earlier this year

Speaking with universities, employers, professional bodies and graduates showed me that there is a need to for us to develop and maintain a clearer view about the skills that are sought in the work place and whether universities are providing them. Part of this is about improving the existing system of degree accreditation. Employers need to be involved in accrediting courses to make sure they are delivering those skills, and students need to be reassured that the skills they are learning will be useful in their working lives.

The evidence we have gathered has constantly highlighted the importance of work experience, and the need for more to be done to integrate meaningful work experience into courses. Students need to understand the real-world application of their studies. They need to understand how to collaborate, interact and communicate in the work place. If we can get university careers services involved, and give students some exposure to the work place through internships and the like, then we can boost graduate employment in computer science and many other subjects.

New degree apprenticeships may be one way to support some students with on-the-job learning. Getting employers involved in designing these courses may provide insights that will also improve outcomes in more traditional degrees.

University teaching also needs to be more focused on employment outcomes. The government’s new teaching excellence framework presents an opportunity to do this – building employment outcomes more firmly into courses, and raising the standard of teaching so that students in all subjects feel that they are getting value for money. Requiring greater data transparency from universities on the outcomes and destinations of graduates from their courses will further help students to make informed decisions and pick the course that will serve them best in building a career.

The UK’s world-leading research in computer science and its underpinning technologies is driving the field forward worldwide. New services and new businesses, new opportunities and new challenges arise from the discoveries made at our universities. We have to continue to produce graduates who possess both the foundational knowledge of their subject and the skills required to innovate, collaborate and adapt. There is a clearly identifiable need for these skills, and universities and employers need to work in partnership to ensure that we meet the challenge.

Sir Nigel Shadbolt is professor of computer science and principal of Jesus College, Oxford.

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