Learning our lesson

1 Jan 2010

According to the experts, changing the way our education system works is vital if we are to encourage young people to take up professions such as IT and engineering that will benefit our smart economy. GORDON SMITH reports.

The dotcom bust earlier this decade turned a generation of students off a career in the technology sector. Now will the recession exacerbate the problem? And what does this mean for the knowledge economy – will it be a castle built on sand if there aren’t enough graduates to fill the positions required?

New figures are hardly encouraging when seeking answers to these questions. Data from the Higher Education Authority (HEA) shows that university students choosing disciplines of maths, science and computing declined by 13pc in 2008. It’s a similar story from the Central Applications Office, with 2009 figures showing further decline: the number of applicants for engineering and technology degree courses was down by 9.8pc on last year.

This problem has been brewing for some time. In 2005, Dublin City University had 224 graduates from its computing course. By the following year, this number had dropped by more than half to 92 and declined again to 78 in 2007.

Professor John Murphy of Univer-sity College Dublin’s (UCD) School of Computer Science and Informatics offers another vignette. “When I started here four years ago, we had 80 people in our final-year class. Now there aren’t even 30,” he says.

There are immediate consequences, given the estimated 5,000 vacancies the IT sector is reportedly struggling to fill right now. Far more worrying, however, are the future implications for the wider economy.

“This is directly of concern to IDA Ireland and to our clients,” confirms George Bennett, head of the clean technology division at IDA Ireland.

“Current FDI [foreign direct investment] will be joined by new FDI, we’re very confident of that. Right now, there are greater numbers on the supply side because of the economic contraction, but that could be a problem when the situation improves. A shortage of skills would lead to competition for jobs and wage escalation like we had in previous years and we don’t want that to happen again.”

A report by Ipsos MORI for the HEA issued in April spelled out the extent of the problem. “The challenges of encouraging greater use of computing and technology in schools are considerable, in terms of insufficient funding to develop it, a potential skills gap whereby students are more technology-literate than their teachers, in addition to the difficulties of adding to an already heavy burden of school work,” it says.

The report also finds that all groups it spoke with consider access to computing and technology training in Irish schools as limited and in many cases outdated, lagging behind best standards in other countries.

“Those with a passion for computing and technology who pursue third-level study in this area are typically self-taught and place little value on the access they are given in school,” it says.

Inspiring initiatives

Initiatives are in progress at several levels to address the problem.

“Under the Discover Science and Engineering programme funded by Forfás, some €2.5m is being spent annually to promote the take up of science, engineering and technology in schools and colleges, and an awareness of the importance of these disciplines in society generally,” says a spokesperson for the Department of Education.

The programme includes activities under Science Week, science clubs in schools, Science Excellence Awards, conferences and lectures, science quizzes and the ‘Scope’ TV programme.

Separately, the HEA is funding several initiatives to promote ICT courses to prospective students, while it also provides funding to third-level institutions, both to improve the attractiveness of existing ICT courses and to set up new ones. An example of the latter is the newly approved postgraduate programmes at University College Cork’s (UCC) Department of Computer Science.

At second level, initiatives such as Discover Sensors, Nanoquest and Science on Stage are supposed to stimulate student interest in science and technology.

The Department of Education formed an expert group earlier this year to examine how the department and the private sector can collaborate to improve technology usage in the classroom, in an attempt to tackle the problem at source. However, that review is still ongoing – although the group had initially been due to report by May – and the Department would not comment on developments to date.

The Department’s spokesperson says the aim is to devise a curriculum on the basis that ICT is not a subject, but a tool to be integrated into the teaching and learning of all subjects.

“The National Council for Curriculum and Assessment has developed an ICT framework which sets out a structured approach to ICT in curriculum and assessment.”

Deep-rooted problems

Some believe the problems are more deep rooted. Havok, the games technology developer and Trinity College Dublin spin-out company, is having to look beyond Ireland for recruitment due to a lack of available skills. In an interview with Siliconrepublic.com in April, Havok CEO David O’Meara was scathing in his criticism of the Irish education system, which he said was “at best only average” and is not producing either the quality or quantity of graduates required.

“We need people who are innovative and capable of commercial and quick thinking,” he said. “The other issue on the education front for me is that it is not a question of money, but teaching. We don’t demand accountability from our teachers when it comes to important subjects such as maths.”

The figures bear out O’Meara’s contention: under the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA), an internationally standardised assessment administered to 15 year olds in schools, Ireland ranked 16th out of the 30 OECD countries in maths ability.

Only 20pc of students taking this year’s Leaving Cert are taking higher-level maths.

“We are concerned,” says Una Halligan, chairperson of the Expert Group on Future Skills Needs (EGFSN). “High-level maths is one area we are really struggling with. Strong maths skills underpin the requirement for developing the knowledge economy.” She expresses her disappointment that the Department of Education refused to implement the group’s proposal that school leavers taking honours maths should receive bonus CAO points.

This was the most high profile of a series of recommendations made by the EGFSN aimed at addressing the maths deficit. The group also called for the provision of professional development and recognition to primary- and secondary-level maths teachers. Adequate time should be allocated to developing maths competence on teacher-training courses, it said.

Another proposal was that primary- and secondary- level maths teachers should be provided with additional professional development. Professional master’s degrees and higher diplomas in maths education should also be developed.

Many teachers giving higher-level maths classes don’t have a higher-level maths degree themselves, Halligan claims. Some of the problem lies with the textbooks and she calls for a more imaginative approach to teaching maths, using new media and technology.

Supporting skills

The EGFSN’s position is that an adequate supply of people with mathematical, science and ICT skills is crucial to Ireland’s future social and economic development. The IDA takes a similar view.

“Mathematically based skills such as engineering, sciences, software and financial services really form the core of FDI skills needs,” adds Bennett.

The Irish Software Association has also expressed concern that indigenous companies could struggle to recruit skilled labour in sufficient numbers in the future.

In many ways, the situation is like the stock political promise to put more Gardaí on the streets: it glosses over the problem that these extra numbers have to be recruited to the profession in the first place. Perception is clearly a factor. Anecdotally, senior figures at university computing departments say the fallout from the dotcom slump caused many parents and career guidance counsellors to discourage students from pursuing technology subjects.

“It is a national challenge to encourage students to take up maths, science and engineering courses. It’s almost too late to have that dialogue with people when they’re preparing for the Leaving Cert,” says Bennett.

Another recent report from the HEA, aimed at making technology careers more attractive to students, acknowledged there can be a negative perception around technology.

“The report shows that the problem is a complex one and there is no one solution that will solve it overnight. Industry, third-level colleges and schools need to work together to agree and promote a common message to promote careers in technology,” says Kathryn D’Arcy, director of ICT Ireland.

A pilot scheme, Project Maths was launched in 24 schools last September and this takes a more interactive, student-focused approach to the subject with the ultimate aim of encouraging greater uptake in science and technology courses at third level.

The Department of Education calls this “major reform” at junior and senior cycle, but it’s questionable whether it will have the appetite – or, more importantly, the budget – to extend this initiative beyond the test sites. “There is a hope that this is successful, so the Department of Education would roll that out in all schools sooner rather than later,” says Halligan.

But is all this focus on maths and related disciplines of science and engineering a sign of conventional wisdom at work? Dr Eoin O’Leary, a lecturer at UCC specialising in economic growth, innovation and regional economics, believes the Department of Education made the right decision. “I don’t know the reasons but I’m glad they said no,” he says.

To support his argument, O’Leary contends the CAO points system is a market – the lower points needed for computing and science subjects simply reflects a lack of demand, while greater interest in the business courses explains why there are more points required.

“People are going in to these courses because they see a better future in business,” says O’Leary. “Are all these people wrong? The brighter kids are doing business because they see a longer-term future in understanding how markets work and that’s the key to innovation. I’m not saying we should ignore technology, obviously, but the people best able to use it are those with business acumen.”

Halligan counters this, saying that maths skills have a broad application. “ICT underpins everything – hospitals, healthcare generally or the financial sector – it’s not just about working for somebody like HP or Intel. The biomedical and pharmaceutical industries need really smart people and what really underpins all this is a higher-level maths qualification.”

Bennett agrees. “Leaders in most industries at very senior level almost all have some form of engineering or finance or business background. There is a wide array of career opportunities from studying maths. It opens many more doors to students than to those who elect not to study it.”

In reality, the innovation debate raises broader questions besides the lack of maths skills. Halligan is quick to acknowledge this. “Of the population going into college every year, of course we’re not saying 100pc of them have to do maths and science, but it’s not an either/or situation. You have to promote innovation, and some of those innovators will be maths people and some will be science people,” she says.

Halligan’s day job at HP means she sees a steady stream of graduates and she says the company is pleased with the quality of Irish employees to date, with many of them naturally showing creativity or innovative leanings. A potential problem for the future is that this is not systematic. “It’s not as if some people have it and some people don’t: innovation is something you can teach, but I’m not sure if our education system lends itself to it as it is, and that’s a question I don’t know the answer to,” Halligan admits. Maybe it’s time to start having the conversation.

By Gordon Smith

Gordon Smith was a contributor to Silicon Republic