For many years the ICT skills shortage has confounded the industry, media, tech academies and government. With no clear progress in resolving it, IT departments continue having to over-outsource or pay exorbitant rates to obtain critical skills.
Skills represent such an enormous problem that it’s difficult to get one’s head around it or imagine how so many interests could possibly work in concert to overcome it.
However, one quick win to be had is if universities revised their curricula and stopped producing computer science graduates who have little knowledge and experience of real-world issues and requirements of ICT.
Meaningful or pointless?
How meaningful is the computer science qualification taught at your university?
To a certain degree, old technologies like Cobol are being taught at some universities without proper regard for their real-world everyday use, simply because there is a resident expert on-board.
Instead, more relevant technologies and skills, such as mobile and cloud computing, should receive more exposure and the needs of South Africa and the continent should be considered.
Besides the content of a degree, there is also its effectiveness. Universities should do honest soul-searching about the success rate of their graduates in finding employment, asking themselves how many find jobs, what positions are open to them and what extra professional qualifications they need to attain to be employed.
Without providing answers now, it is enough to note that these and other pragmatic questions aimed at bridging the gap between academia and business ought to be what drives curricula. Not tradition and certainly not the ready availability of in-house expertise.
Towards business-academia integration
A recent visit to India revealed an impressive degree of integration between tech companies and universities.
Universities must network with business
To begin with, we witnessed a truly striking turnout of Master students and even professors at a high-level (business-focused) global conference. What’s more, their seats weren’t sponsored – their universities had sent them.
In South Africa, this sort of thing doesn’t happen. It may be a cost issue, but the opportunity to network with businesses is priceless. Academics must pick the best opportunities and seize their chance to align their objectives with real-world issues.
Universities must feed business with innovation
Many national software companies in India are so hungry for innovation that they will locate themselves in close proximity to universities, research and development facilities and associated recruitment firms. Faculty members, in turn, often have automatic access to R&D labs, and R&D staff often lecture at universities.
The integration is so tight that students can graduate on one end of the street and walk across to the other, fully skilled to be productive in a position in industry or R&D.
In South Africa, this degree of partnership is unheard of. Some might counter that South Africa’s IT industry is mostly reseller-focused, but there is much innovation on home soil that can be fostered with stronger links to more receptive universities.
The price of insularity
Universities are ultimately responsible for delivering great education that serves the needs of the nation – and they’re rewarded every year with a quality intake; a self-reinforcing value proposition.
A parochial mindset when undertaking curriculum design and an overly strict focus on cost containment will place severe restrictions on their ability to deliver value, ultimately working to their detriment.
Given universities’ responsibility to help redress social imbalances and the pent-up demand for education (leading to an over-supply of applicants), real-world skills are even more vital in a university’s armoury.
The problem touches students too. On realising their disadvantage, many seek internships to gain experience. The temptation for universities might be to gratefully rely on such pressure valves, but the interns should be debriefed and the lessons fed into universities’ curriculum design.
Business suffers too. The scarcity of sought-after skills drives up the cost of those skills. This poses a threat also to the economy – the number of university students starting businesses in South Africa is comparatively low, given the salaries they command in the corporate environment thanks to this unhealthy situation.
With many more start-ups per graduating class by comparison, India has been able to build an industry rich in intellectual property, consequently attracting a great amount of off-shore business process outsourcing.
Better collaboration with business would allow universities to place the right amount of focus on the right areas needed in the market, thus benefiting themselves, students, the industry and the economy.