Digital skills crisis looming, peers warn

A UK shortage of digital skills has reached a “tipping point” and universities are not doing enough to address the crisis, a House of Lords report warns

February 17, 2015

The Digital Skills Committee report, Make or Break: The UK’s Digital Future, says there is evidence that the higher education sector “has not responded to the urgent need for reskilling” and that universities could better serve students by developing shorter, more flexible provision to add to their existing courses.

In a blueprint for a new government, the report calls for “targeted skills funding” to help institutions develop such courses and ensure that all students are digitally competent. It also calls on universities to build stronger links with industry and work more closely with digital organisations in their local areas.

Giving evidence to the committee, Nick Boles, minister jointly for the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills and the Department for Education, said he was “surprised by how slowly the university sector has changed” in reaction to the perceived digital skills crisis.

“I would have expected, and do expect in the next 10 years, a much more rapid embrace of sandwich courses, shorter courses, longer courses, more part-time courses,” he said.

Other witnesses spoke of the importance of conversion courses, where degrees can be converted to a more vocational employment pathway, and argued that there are “not enough apprenticeships” in digital disciplines.

Elsewhere in the report, the peers call on higher education institutions to lead what they call “regional ecosystems” or “clusters”, where universities form closer ties with local industry.

Guy Levin, executive director of policy advisory group Coadec (Coalition for a Digital Economy), is quoted in the report. “In the US there are far better links between universities such as Stanford and [the Massachusetts Institute of Technology] with local digital clusters,” he says.

The report says that Innovate UK – the new name for the Technology Strategy Board – is well placed to identify, fund and coordinate regional opportunities for academia-industry partnerships and could be doing more.

The committee is particularly critical of the way in which research is funded. It calls for a review of spending on research to “ensure the UK is comparable with other leading economies”.

It calls for the Research Councils to be given “more power” to “identify strengths in local universities and connect them with the regional area”.

In addition, the report finds that current immigration and visa rules “do not support the urgent short-term need for talent”, and calls on the future government to “immediately reinstate” the post-study work visa, which was abolished by the government in 2012.  

However, “even if the previous post-study visa work route was reintroduced, an incoming government could not rely solely on high-skilled immigration as the main mechanism to reduce the skills shortage in the short term”, the report adds. “Greater emphasis is needed on cultivating home-grown talent.”

The committee also calls for “greater transparency and availability of destination data” to enable prospective students to make a more informed choice about future study, with computer science courses given particular scrutiny. “There was evidence that the higher education offer around computer science provision was not consistent between institutions,” the report says.

When she gave evidence to the committee in November, Dame Wendy Hall, director of the Web Science Institute at the University of Southampton, said it was a “myth” that computer science graduates have poorer employment prospects than those who studied other subjects, despite figures suggesting this was the case. She told the committee “all sorts of different things” were “lumped” together under the term computer science, meaning that destination data were not reliable.

The report also calls for “a commitment to increase significantly the number of girls studying STEM subjects at further and higher education”.

Baroness Morgan, chair of the committee, said the report was “a wake-up call to whoever forms the next government in May”.

“Digital is everywhere, with digital skills now seen as vital life skills. It’s obvious, however, that we’re not learning the right skills to meet our future needs,” she said.

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