Wednesday, 15 August 2007

A-level results: hope all goes well

Tomorrow the A-level results come out in England, Wales and Northern Ireland. I've worked in the admissions tutor role for a number of years so I know how much these grades mean to people who wish to secure a place on the university course of their choice. All I'd like to say is good luck and I hope all goes well!

Monday, 6 August 2007

A great site:

In my professional life I try to make sense of what's going on in the IT industry. There's a lot of data one can use (for example the excellent quarterly e-skills Bulletin and ICT Inquiry), but here's a site from an IT professional doing it himself. Nick Wells runs a website - - that analyses the text of published IT job advertisements on the internet and strips out the information about skills, locations and pay rates (though I have to thank my colleague Maggie Cooper for drawing this site to my attention originally).

A key graph from jobstats is below. The effect on IT vacancies of the dot-com boom and bust is clear for this. It also appears that the job market has largely recovered beyond pre-dot-com levels. Of course, this buoyancy begs a question: if the job prospects seem so good, why have applications for computing degrees not recovered in line with the job market?

Advertised IT vacancies as of 31 July 2007 (

I've used this a lot when analysing the IT job market. Though it appears rough and ready, you'd be surprised how similar the process behind some 'official' figures can be (measurement of economic factors such as productivity is quite difficult in practice). I doubt that, qualitatively at least, these figures are too far off from the reality.

Anyway, have a look. You may be surprised what you find...

Friday, 3 August 2007

A slow knee jerk (computing student retention)

I'd like to introduce David Evan's Unqualified Remarks blog on the BCS website. It's a recent addition to the blogsphere, and already has a number of interesting, informed and thought-provoking posts. I expect that that I'll be linking to his posts - of course I may not agree all of the time!

One post that I thought was interesting was 'A quick knee-jerk on computing drop-outs'. It speculates from a Computing article that reports on the National Audit Office's report on graduate retention. In short Maths & Computing degrees have the lowest retention and completion rates (I don't like the term 'drop-out' - sounds like blaming the students). His speculations broadly were around three points.
  1. ICT as taught in schools is a poor fit to that in universities - more on that later...
  2. A maths/numerical/science background is probably more relevant to a computing degree than school ICT - no argument there, but perhaps this is worth unpacking further in future posts.
  3. That since applications have dropped in recent years (since 2001, by almost half) universities are taking in students with lower A-level grades.
David did remark that he did not have research data to hand. Thankfully, there is some evidence base around computing retention. As head of a computing department you'd imagine I'd be looking at this closely - and you'd be right. There are some studies that I do have to hand that are relevant to David's argument, and I'd like to share them with you.

Let us start with the speculation around whether the drop in applications for computing degrees since 2001 has lead to poorer-quality students getting in.

I have taken a graph from the Developing the Future 2007 report that compares the performance of applicants for computing degrees to the overall pool of applicants (I assume that this is based on HESA data). As we can see there has not been a drop in the performance of computing applicants.

I admit that this is a finding that I find somewhat surprising as anecdotally I have heard that drops in entrance requirements have occurred (and given the drop in applications you would have expected this).

In any case there is a clear difference in ability between the average performance of all university applicants (around the BBB level), and that of computing applicants (around the CCC mark). So David may well be right about lower grades on entry, but it wasn't the recruitment crash that caused it.

What should be of real concern is that computing is losing ground - the gap in performance is getting wider year-on-year!

NB. I should take the opportunity to say that City has not followed the national computing recruitment trends - we are one of the minority of computing departments to have maintained both student numbers and quality since 2001. But it is fair to say that a lot of computing departments in the UK are under pressure. I'll be posting on this soon, I hope.

Now, onto what is taught in schools. I doubt that I could find any computing admissions tutor that is happy with ICT teaching in schools. To be frank, I find the syllabus of the BTEC National (a vocational qualification) more relevant to studying computing at university than A-level ICT since it focuses on technical issues. But back to the evidence base. The perception of students in schools and colleges has been studied, two relevant ones are:
  1. Alison Mitchell et al, ‘Computing Science at University: what do pupils in Scottish schools think about it?’. Presentation at the Higher Education Academy Workshop on Progression, Retention & Recruitment, Edinburgh 2005.
  2. Gillian Lovegrove and Anna Round, Report on the HEFCE-funded initiative ‘IT Professionals in Education, Increasing the Supply'. Newcastle/London, November 2005 and January 2006.
They concur with David's suspicions. What is clear from these studies is that students find ICT in schools to be unchallenging and a poor indicator of the challenging and rewarding careers available in the IT industry (or what a degree involves). It also seems to put off the more able students, and attract the less able - clearly not what we want. These studies deserve further analysis - there's a lot to discuss there.

As a final note David did mention that the ICT syllabus problem was (apparently) less in Scotland (though the Scottish study does seem to have very similar responses to the English studies of school attitudes). I'm familiar with the Scottish education system (having lived there for five years), but I've never looked at their school teaching of ICT in detail. But if readers can shed light on this claim, I'd be most interested.

PS. Of course, it goes without saying if you can throw any further light on the above issues - please post on my profile.

Tuesday, 31 July 2007

Developing the Future (and why I started blogging)

One of the highlights of my year and a major reason for sparking my interest in how higher education interacts with the IT industry is my work contributing to the Developing the Future 2007 (DtF 2007) report that was published in May on behalf of City University jointly with Microsoft, the BCS and Intellect.

DtF 2007 (and the previous 2006 report) covered a lot of issues relevant to how universities interact with the IT industry. Both reports for example drew attention to the crisis in recruiting computing students. Some of the issues I'll be blogging about will be based on background research that I did for DtF that did not get used in the report (or at least not in full).

I'm blogging because I think these issues are important, and writing about them should help me get some of my nascent ideas straight. Also, not all the coverage out there is what I would call 'evidence based'. Some is definitely written with an agenda or from prejudice. I'd like to respond to that with evidence - a lot is there if you wish to look.

Not all of the posts will be expansions of DtF 2007 - I also aim to respond to the discussions in the media! That said, both reports do cover issues I'm interested in. Those new to issues around the IT industry, skills, innovation and education would be well advised to read them.

Both reports are also very timely in regards to government policy. The UK government is very strongly drawn to the idea that their intervention in 'skills' will have a clear economic impact. And if you think that skills will not be a big policy issue, then think again. The Leitch report on skills was driven by the treasury - the chancellor is now the Prime Minister - you do the math!

Of course, not everyone thinks that this will work - Alison Wolf is a notable example in her book 'Does Education Matter?'. That said, few would dispute that the state can make things harder, so its (in)actions are not without consequence. The truth as always somewhere in the middle - 'where' being the key question But more on that for later posts.

Friday, 13 July 2007

Getting Started...

Over the coming months I'll be writing down my thoughts on the IT industry and computing in Higher Education. The two are intimately connected, but not in the way one would immediately think. I have quite an interest in these questions - so watch this space.