Industry distressed at drop in demand for IT courses

20 Aug 2003

A drop by an average of 75 points for IT and science courses in Irish universities and colleges in this year’s CAO placements, indicating a major drop in interest amongst school leavers for careers in the IT sector, has prompted alarm amongst professionals and employers in the technology sector. The drop in points has also prompted fears that the industry may not field the 14,000 IT professionals that will be needed in 2005.

The news has been met with bittersweet irony by the Irish Computer Society (ICS), which warned earlier this year that CAO applications for IT courses in 2003 could drop even further than the low levels experienced last year, sparking fears that not only are students missing out on long-term job prospects, but that the industry here may soon experience a crippling skills shortage when growth eventually returns to the sector.

“This is a grave threat to the IT industry in Ireland,” warned ICS chief executive Frank Cronin. “Firstly, the solution is not to drop the points. That will lower the calibre of the professionals coming out of the courses. It will also mean the admission of students who may not make the grade and will result in churn, with students switching to courses they are more capable of doing after the first year. If Ireland is serious about moving up the value chain in the global IT industry, then reducing the calibre of students and paving the way for a potential skills shortage is not the answer.”

“Ultimately, in terms of the industry, it looks like bad news. We predicted this situation and are not happy to be proven right. The calibre of people in the IT industry is crucial. There is no point in the colleges dropping the points. It might mean more entrants, but many of these might not finish in the end and those that do may not be the right calibre that the companies are looking for. This is a fundamental concern, especially for inward investment, at a time when locations like India and Eastern Europe are rising higher in the eyes of the world’s IT community,” Cronin warned.

Fundamental amongst Cronin’s concerns were that a falloff in third level first year degree students in computing indicates a decline in the attractiveness of computing to entrants to third level education. This in turn could impact the nature and quality of teaching of computing as a secondary school subject. As well as this it could lead to an inevitable decrease in the number of PhDs in computing to support cutting-edge research and development in computing and science.

“Basically, lower points means possibly higher drop-out levels. As well as this it may also lead to the perception of IT as an ‘easy option’ and result in a lack of respect for the profession,” Cronin warned. “Basically the Department of Education needs to go ‘back to school’ on the problem, making IT a proper, mandatory Leaving Certificate subject. Understanding what IT is about and the skill sets needed will fuel demand. College bashing is futile.”

Earlier this year the ICS presented the Department of Education with a report drawn up by Michael Ryan, professor of computing at Dublin City University. The report indicated that the present points system at present is unsound, confusing the academic standard achieved and the competitive performance in the “points race.” The paper also highlighted the fact that Ireland lags behind other EU countries in the provision of computing education at second level and called for computing to be implemented as a Leaving Certificate subject.

Cronin revealed that in November, the ICS will be funding an initiative to address the issues in relation to IT in education in Ireland. Entitled ‘ChooseIT’ the initiative will be aimed at enticing second level students to plan their futures in an IT context with the aim of boosting the popularity of IT courses in universities and colleges through self-assessment quizzes and information campaigns for career guidance counsellors.

While this year’s CAO results were a disappointment for the technology sector, the actual mode of distribution of the CAO offers this year was a triumph for internet technology. According to a spokesperson for HEAnet, the internet service provider that powered the CAO website, up to 10,000 young people per hour logged in and saw their offers from 6am this morning, with between 50,000 and 60,000 visitors logged.

“Last year the site received around 100,000 visitors in two days. This year we expect that to increase,” the spokesperson said. “Would-be third level students can confirm their choice within 10 seconds through a simple access, check and confirm mechanism.

“Last year 50pc of all students accepted their offers online. Over the next two years we envisage this to rise to 75pc of all students accepting their places online,” she said.

By John Kennedy

Pictured: students Claire Bacon and Jennifer Deasy who accessed their
CAO first round offers online on the CAO website