Improving ICT education may take government help

More support by the government for real-world experience in ICT education would produce better and more hirable graduates, said Australian Computer Society Foundation (ACSF) executive director, John Ridge.

The ACSF has attempted to address the skills gaps by offering scholarships that match ICT students with ICT businesses for an extended work contract.

Since 2000, enrollments in ICT courses have dropped 40 per cent, Ridge said at a lunch in Sydney. The trend has leveled off in the last few years but remains a problem, he said. There is “a shortage of IT-skilled people, attrition of students both during their courses and after graduation” and graduates finding it hard to get employment because they have no workplace experience, he said.

There is no “simple solution” or “magic bullet” for solving the problem, Ridge said. Keeping IT students interested in the subject may be more important than attracting new ones, and many students drop out of IT because they’re not happy with the education they receive, he said. Meanwhile, businesses should not outsource entry-level jobs, because that results in fewer opportunities for graduates, he said.

The ACSF currently operates without any funding from the federal government. However, it does receive support from the Western Australia government, Ridge said. One reason for the lack of federal help may be that the federal government tends to focus support on start-up programs, rather than financially mature organisations like the ACSF, he said.

Besides funding, the government could enhance ICT in Australia by making the subject a higher priority in its national agenda. The government gives little focus to IT in its action plans for each industry, even though IT plays a vital role in all major industries, Ridge said.

Universities, too, should talk about ICT in the context of other industries, said NEC Australia national delivery manager, Ben McEvoy. Universities’ focus on coding turns students off, and raising awareness of how IT plays a role in other industries likely would attact more to the industry, he said.

Ridge said he doesn’t see students moving abroad after graduation as a major concern for Australia, because going overseas can provide valuable experience. “Rather than seeing the ‘brain drain’ as a big threat, I see it as an opportunity.” Government should give all students the opportunity of an around-the-world trip, he said.

There remains a gender gap in the ICT industry, but it’s improving, Ridge said. About one-third of students who receive ACSF scholarships are women, and the group is trying to encourage more women to apply, he said.

The ACSF has been an active voice on ICT education challenges. Last month, it told the Australian Curriculum Assessment and Reporting Authority that the IT skills shortage threatened the national economy. The ACSF also shone a light on the ICT skills shortfall at a Canberra conference in March. The group has praised the NBN as a potential driver of ICT jobs.

To date, the ACSF has provided 3,850 scholarships and raised more than $42.5 million, Ridge said. It received $7.46 million from donors in the last financial year, 11 per cent more than the previous year, supporting more than 365 scholarships.

The scholarship program has created benefits for students and employers, Ridge said. A survey in WA found that 96.6 percent of students with ACSF scholarships found employment in the industry, he said. Seven years after being hired, about 70 per cent of students still worked at the same company, he said.

“I don’t there’s been a student we’ve had come through ACSF that we have not offered a position to at the end of [the scholarship] period,” said McEvoy. Before ACSF, he had difficulty finding students with any practical experience, and spent a great deal of time “unteaching” what they learned in school.

Similarly, Fast Track Communications partner, Geoff Bednel, said he frequently saw students coming out of university understanding IT theory but having no practical experience. Assessing a student’s ability over the 12-month scholarship provides ample time for a company to decide if the student will be a good hire, he added.

From the student’s perspective, there’s a great deal of pressure to build work experience to get a job after university, said Monitex director, John Painter. “University does have a place,” he said, “but it’s not really until you apply it … that it really sinks in.”

Frontline Systems hired Painter after a successful ACSF scholarship, and Painter later left to start his own company. The 12-month scholarship provided a much fuller experience than the three-month internship typical of most universities, he said.

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Copyright © 2012 IDG Communications, Inc.

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