Science crisis deepens

25 Sep 2003

Not so long ago, the image of science and technology was of something slick and shiny, a sector wrapped in unassailable optimism. A dynamic, multi-billion set of industries, spanning IT to pharmaceuticals and biotechnology, it provided gainful employment to thousands of people in this country and looked likely to do so for many years to come. Try telling that to the parents and students of the Leaving Cert class of 2003.

The worrying news for the information and communications technology (ICT) sector is that general demand for IT courses in the recent round of CAO offers fell on average by 40pc, with some 1,000 IT college places left unclaimed. As well as this, waning student interest in science subjects amongst second-level students can be illustrated by the fact that only one in seven students takes higher level physics and chemistry in the Leaving Cert.

It’s hard not to blame students and their parents for looking to other academic pursuits. The industry is in the midst of perhaps its worst downturn. Up to 9,000 jobs have been lost in multinational companies over the past two years and the loss in recent weeks of 670 jobs at 3Com in Blanchardstown could dismay anybody looking for viable jobs with long-term prospects. But industry professionals and policy makers argue otherwise — this is a blip and the industry will eventually right itself.

Concerned industry professionals worry that by 2005 when the sector has recovered from the present downturn, it might not be able to field the 14,000 IT graduates originally anticipated by the Forfás-led Expert Skills Group that would be required. This could impact Ireland’s competitiveness, leaving the country open to competition from elsewhere in the world (India can field 600,000 IT graduates a year) and requiring the country to source workers from foreign countries.

The fear amongst IDA Ireland executives and policy makers is that not only does a shortage of degree graduates put a spanner in the works, it also means a limited throughput of PhD and other more advanced graduates needed to meet the objective of moving Ireland up the value chain for the more research and development-intensive and higher paying work, whilst the lower paying manufacturing assembly functions inevitably go elsewhere to more affordable economies.

Meeting this objective of moving up the value chain has prompted a serious row behind the scenes that pits education professionals in second- and third-level education against the Department of Education and Science. In this two-front battle, while the Government makes efforts to assuage industry fears and to revive waning student interest in science by introducing a more practical, hands-on science syllabus for the Junior Cert, teachers argue that the resources and time for such a syllabus (which requires up to 30 science experiments) do not exist.

However, on the third-level side of things, embattled colleges and universities have expressed consternation at the rumours that the Government is considering postponing funding for a second consecutive year the much-needed Programme for Research in Third-Level Institutions (PRTLI).

To make matters worse, waning student interest in IT courses in favour of humanities, arts, social care, engineering and generalist business courses has meant that pragmatic and financially efficient colleges and universities are considering scrapping IT courses with insufficient student numbers, especially the Institutes of Technology that are gearing to become Higher Education Authority (HEA) institutions. For example, the Dundalk Institute of Technology failed to fill 20pc of its places in round one of the recent CAO offers.

However, as far as the IT industry is concerned, it is less a matter of quantity but a matter of quality of graduates. On average, the admission level for IT courses fell by 75 points. According to Frank Cronin of the Irish Computer Society, this will mean people taking up courses in IT that may not be able for the various academic rigours, resulting in a higher instance of student dropout and subsequently less graduates for the industry to pool from. “This is a grave threat to the IT industry in Ireland,” warns Cronin. “Firstly, the solution is not to reduce 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.”

A report by the HEA two years ago found that the dropout rate in computer courses ranged from 30pc at Trinity College Dublin to a 40pc average across the Institutes of Technology. In an unprecedented move, Dublin City University astutely moved to set a minimum of 300 points for one of its computer courses, arguing that students with less than this would not be able to cope with the maths required.

Despite the €650m being ploughed into boosting Ireland’s scientific infrastructure and community of leading minds under the auspices of Science Foundation Ireland (SFI), there is a growing argument towards getting the fundamentals just right at second and third level. According to IBEC’s tech sector lobby group ICT Ireland, reports of plans to cut science research funding for Irish universities and colleges under the National Development Plan send out the wrong signals to overseas investors. The onus, its director Brendan Butler says, was on producing the right number and calibre of postgraduates. “An investment of some €140m in third-level research was shelved last year and the feeling is that it is going to be shelved again this year. To get our skills up and produce the right calibre of graduate, we need to attract researchers from abroad skilled in ICT and biotechnology. What’s the point in attracting them and not having the lab equipment they require? It would be a significant blow to third level if the funding is shelved again,” he says.

Just as pressing, says Butler, is the dispute between secondary teachers and the Department of Education over the proposed new science syllabus, leading to ICT Ireland suggesting that opposing teachers’ payments under the benchmarking agreement be withheld if they refuse to co-operate with the new syllabus. “It is a fundamental issue. There is a general decline in interest in science at second level and this has a knock-on impact in terms of the numbers of people going for computer courses. Despite this, people scored well on points in their Leaving Cert, but just didn’t seem to opt for technology courses. This bears a direct relation to the perception of the sector at the present time. The market is on a downward curve at present but people need to realise that there are and will be sustainable jobs going forward. But the time to get it right is now,” he adds.

In an effort to resolve the problem, ICT Ireland and the industry took matters into their own hands by creating work experience opportunities for graduates feeling the pinch in the industry. “It is an effort to give unemployed graduates a foot in the door and at the same time it represents a vote of confidence by the industry, which believes it has a bright future in Ireland,” Butler says.

The chairman of the Information Society Commission (ISC) Danny O’Hare agrees that demand would be there in three years’ time to employ skilled graduates. O’Hare also chairs the Expert Group on Future Skills as well as the Task Force on Physical Science. “For parents and students, they need to rethink the opportunities in science and computing. It’s absolutely wrong to dismiss the sector on account of the current market downturn. The current student would graduate in three or four years’ time. Even conservative projections would say that there will be a recovery well before then. This industry is at the core of our lives in Ireland, as much as heating and electricity.

“Parents who undertake this narrow view of where there will be job opportunities, persuading their children to pursue other careers instead of technology and science, is dead wrong. Ups and downs are a regular feature of the technology industry and every time the industry comes back better and stronger,” he adds.

O’Hare believes the industry and the education system have failed to get that message across: “Heads are being turned by some redundancies, but it is such a short-term view. Unemployment in Ireland is less than 5pc. In economies such as the US that is considered 0pc.”

“In terms of the Government slashing investment in third-level science research, that’s wrong. I think the Government should hold its nerve on this one,” O’Hare says. “The decision to shelve the PRTLI was a big negative and is already having ramifications. It sends out a message that the Government has an unstable policy. It also endangers the €650m in SFI, because it is part of the overall research infrastructure of Ireland. It looks like second thoughts on the part of the Government in relation to science and that sends out all the wrong signals internationally.”

In answer to the Government’s excuse of lack of resources, O’Hare suggests that it should consider borrowing. “The lesson of the Eighties was that borrowing for non-productive processes was wrong. But borrowing for productive purposes makes sense. The ESRI [Economic and Social Research Institute] has been very clear on this if we need to responsibly sustain Ireland’s economic development.”

O’Hare says that as well as the ISC recommending Government to stick to its course, other interested state agencies such as IDA Ireland have been saying the same things.

“Sticking with our IT future depends on the correct attitude at third level,” an IDA spokesman insists. “We need to think beyond just primary degrees, but look at graduates with master degrees and PhDs. Consider the high-level jobs being created at Xilinx and Nortel. We used to be about purely manufacturing and assembly, but if we are moving towards value add and research and development, we need to keep a good flow of experienced graduates. Sadly, the reality is that the profile of the industry has to lift before young people see a future in the industry. There has been too much negative press.

“The overall picture of employment in the sector is not as bleak as portrayed in the media. The industry employs over 45,000 people and has exports in excess of €30bn, roughly close to one-third of Ireland’s Gross Domestic Product. It is a very critical and major part of Ireland’s economy.

“There were 9,000 jobs lost last year, but some 6,000 were gained. The value of tax contributions from the sector has also grown from €150m to €350m between 1999 and 2001,” the spokesman adds.

But it is not only multinationals that are concerned about young peoples’ perception of technology. Indigenous software firms rely heavily on an entrepreneurial spirit and employ more than 30,000 people. They too need an influx of fresh graduates to stay competitive. Cathal Friel, chairman of the Irish Software Association, says: “Students and parents are not only being short-sighted about the present reality of the IT industry, but it is a knee-jerk reaction. There are definite green shoots sprouting in the form of Overture, eBay and Google. The corollary of the loss of the 3Com jobs is the fact that they were mostly manufacturing jobs, the aim is to replace these with better, higher level jobs and to do that we need graduates.

“An IT qualification is like an international passport. It is a vibrant, international industry and the options are amazing. You can travel and work anywhere in the world. You can go and work for someone else and be well paid for it, but you could also establish your own business.

“The IT industry is one of those industries that has the capacity to reinvent itself. The IT industry in Ireland is not going to go away. It will still be here in 20 years. I would be quite bullish for the sector. But I definitely believe that it is time for the sector to get more involved in the decision-making processes of students and their parents,” Friel concludes.

The graduate

21-year-old Thomas Mulcahy finished college this year with a degree in information systems from the Limerick Institute of Technology. Since graduating, Mulcahy has been unsuccessful in finding a full-time job in the technology industry, but has succeeded in part-time work fixing computers for schools. He plans to return to college this year to do a master’s degree in multimedia technology. “There is a definite feeling among my classmates that we’ve missed the boat in terms of the high times when students were being offered jobs before graduation. Things have definitely changed. A lot of the time letters from companies say that they’ve had a huge reply to the job adverts. No one is taking on junior positions,” he says.

Despite this, Mulcahy is optimistic about the future of the industry, believing that in time there will be jobs again. “I agree that students don’t see a future in IT courses. I think, however, the view they see is a short-term one. The majority of those turning away from IT courses are ‘playing it safe’ and opting for other areas. An important yardstick in my opinion would be to measure the amount of students switching courses away from IT at third level,” he continues. “In the short term, my future job prospects are looking bleak,” he admits. “During the summer I applied for a fair amount of jobs and the competition was quite fierce. I haven’t managed to secure employment and haven’t seen many positive signs. Many employers are looking for two years’-plus experience. I believe that in the long term my chances of securing a suitable job (for example a trainee programmer position) are not outstanding.”

What does he plan to do in the interim? “I have opted to return to college, I applied for a master’s degree at University College Cork and have been offered a place. I believe that keeping my skills up to date is the only way to avoid being gazumped by the fresher graduates next year,” Mulcahy says.

By John Kennedy