Eric Schmidt: UK needs 10,000 computer science academics

Former Google chief says UK is facing a ‘computer science crisis’ that threatens its global position

October 24, 2016
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Eric Schmidt, the former chief executive of Google, has warned that the UK will need 10,000 computer science scholars to improve its global position in the knowledge economy.

Speaking at an event at the London School of Economics (LSE) on 14 October, Dr Schmidt said there was a “huge shortage of computer science faculty” at British universities, which in turn meant that the UK was facing “an enormous problem of a lack of skills of the kind of people you’ll need for the knowledge economy”.

“British people invented a whole bunch of the science and the maths that I’ve grown up with, and yet the vast majority of the activity in the last couple of decades has not been done by British engineers,” Dr Schmidt told the audience at the event, titled From LEO to DeepMind: Britain’s Computing Pioneers. 

“What is the source of this? In [terms of] computer science, it was not seen or valued at the same level [in the education system].

“You have the opportunity to become one of the great knowledge-leading countries of the world for the next 100 years. There is a computer science crisis in the country but it’s a crisis of opportunity. You’re missing the people to fix this quick.”

Asked by Times Higher Education how many academics the UK needed to bridge the gap between it and other countries leading in the field, he said that it would amount to the “many, many thousands”.

“I would order 10,000 to start with,” he said. “I’ll give you an idea of how different it is. The American high-end universities – Harvard, Yale, Princeton – are enormously wealthy with respect to discretionary money, project money and so forth, compared to the finest universities in Britain: LSE, University College London, Oxford, Cambridge, Manchester.

“It’s a huge gap, and that discretionary money means that you’re not able to fund your graduate students, you’re not able to do expeditionary research. American universities have enough money floating around that they can try [things].”

Dr Schmidt, now the executive chairman of Alphabet, Google’s parent company, added that it was a “national shame” for countries that were not able to pour resources into the field because the “opportunity for funding is so large, it’s a huge opportunity missed”.

Speaking to THE after Dr Schmidt’s speech, Chrisanthi Avgerou, professor of information systems at the LSE, said she agreed that the UK had “lost its polymaths” – those “not specialised just to do one thing, but able to connect what they’re doing with a broader understanding of the world”.

“We do not develop [interdisciplinary] capabilities in our training,” she said.

“This country could do with more computer scientists, but what it could do with more is educating managers with substantial information technology innovation capabilities. It would be nice, in the training of our computer scientists, [if] we learned a little bit about business.”

john.elmes@tesglobal.com

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