Do you remember Symbian? Right up until 2010 it was still the most popular OS for mobile phones. It could be argued that it would have died some years earlier if it wasn’t for Nokia -which single-handedly kept it going some way past its sell-by date. But that’s another story.
The point is that it’s no longer with us and yet as Dr Steven Pettifer, Reader and Director of Teaching Strategy (Computer Sciences) at the University of Manchester remarked at the Next Steps for Computer Science conference in London recently, it was not that long ago that industry was crying out for graduates with Symbian coding skills.
With the latest DLHE statistics showing an unemployment rate of 11% for Computer Science graduates being widely reported, it’s easy to say that Universities are being slow to react to industry skills requirements, but it might be a bit more complicated than that.
Another speaker, Professor Sally Smith, Dean of Computer Science at Edinburgh Napier (and Chair of the Council of Professors and Heads of Computing) recently wrote:
“Computer science fundamentals provide a deep undercoat: the latest coding language is just a thin gloss that will be repainted every few years. Combining some agility in curricula with a greater willingness on the part of employers to offer induction to new staff could help to achieve a better balance between underlying theory and shiny new tools.”
These points are valid, and true. It is the role of computer science courses to equip their students with the fundamental concepts of computing, with which they can then figure out for themselves the fast-changing and soon-redundant ‘gloss’ of languages. And the very best courses do precisely that. And as Steve also said, Universities are trying to equip their students for careers that will span the next 40 years at least, not just the next 12 months.
And yet industries are crying out for coders with bang up-to-date understanding of key languages, and it’s not immediately obvious where we will find them. In my own office, hardly a day goes by without a new request for an asp.net developer. My own internships team have been brilliant at identifying and then placing a growing cohort of self-taught php and asp.net developers in the last year.
And perhaps we, like the businesses we represent have been a little guilty of taking the ‘self-taught’ tag as an implied criticism of the Universities that failed to teach them this precise coding language when we should have been praising them for giving them that fundamental understanding from which they can continue to learn, develop and grow.
There are massive challenges to face -I don’t necessarily see the ‘agility’ that Sally Smith referred to right across the UK University sector- plus the lack of work-readiness among a large cohort and the inability of Universities to engage meaningfully with smaller businesses all need addressing. But the initial trepidation I had when first invited to speak to 100+ Computer Science Deans, Heads and lecturers soon faded with the quality of the debate and the openness of attendees to confront and address these challenges.
More on the ‘soft skills’ / ‘employability’ issues in my next piece but in the meantime the Shadbolt Review of Computer Science Degree Accreditation and Graduate Employability will be reporting soon. And the Computing Graduate Employability: Sharing Practice report for CPHC is available here
 Demand Economy, the conundrum of Computer Science, timeshighereducation.com