How to keep UK IT great

Investing in our education system and in capability are the keys to ensuring Brexit means a bright future, says Bill Mitchell - Director of Education at BCS

A report published today by the UK engineering profession hails the government’s renewed focus on industrial strategy as a major opportunity to help the UK compete on the world stage. It also warns that Brexit must not restrict access to the engineering skills from across Europe that our economy relies on.

Whatever the outcome of negotiations with the EU over Brexit, whether they be conducted in a spirit of mutual goodwill or one of hostile bad manners, we are in for years of transition to a new normal.

While that happens our place in the world will be unclear and therefore in doubt, unless we take action now to make sure we are in control of our destiny and not blown around by global winds of cynicism or at best indifference. We have to show that the UK matters to other nations for their future wellbeing and that we are a key part of their strategy for future success.   

A place in the world

The UK is an island of not quite 65 million in a world of over 7 billion, and of our population the workforce is around 33 million give or take. To state the blindingly obvious if we are going to be the destination of choice for overseas investment and if we are going to outcompete other nations in the global economy then, in terms of people power, we are going to succeed on quality not quantity.

We are a creative, inventive, entrepreneurial nation, but so are a lot of other countries too and many of them have free access to very large markets that we may or may not have access to for much longer.

Examining our strengths

So what do we have that the rest of the world doesn’t? If you look at various rankings for university research (e.g. this one from QS) Cambridge, Oxford, UCL, Imperial, Edinburgh, UCL, and Manchester are just some examples of UK university computer science departments ranked in the top 50 for the entire world.

So on that count the UK is outgunning a lot of the rest of the planet in an area that has the potential to change the entire world and address many of the big issues that matter to all of us, such as in healthcare, energy sustainability, transport and our day to day security. What’s more when you look at how well the UK turns that brain power into business power then, according to The Boston Consulting Group, the UK was the largest Internet economy in the G20 in 2015 when measured as a percentage of GDP.

According to the BCG, the internet economy in the UK was worth £180 billion to the overall economy in 2015, which is about 10% of GDP. I’m absolutely sure that’s only going to increase year on year as a percentage of GDP.

This clearly shows that where we have one huge advantage is we are a nation that produces highly talented people who create a huge amount of wealth on the global stage through the Web (which of course was invented by a Brit even if he was a Brit working for CERN, a European research organisation, at the time).

Developers with passports

This is something that’s a very rare combination in the world, which is why it gives us a huge advantage. Even when compared to  the US, often regarded as the land of golden opportunity and still the third richest nation on Earth (well according to the CIA at any rate), it turns out 70% of Silicon Valley software developers are foreign born (see this report for more details). Whereas in London, when I took a straw poll of companies where I happen to have contacts, the percentage of overseas top engineers was closer to 50%. That difference although it may not seem that large is telling and again suggests we have a key advantage we can exploit, but we’d better get on with it as everyone else is doing all they can to catch us up and, if they can, leave us in the dust. We urgently need to make sure the UK creates home grown digital talent and lots of it. OK, so what exactly are we doing about that?

Future talent grown at home

In England we now have a statutory computing curriculum for pupils from age 5 to 16, which is radically ahead of the rest of the world and which the BCS should be proud of as one of the key stakeholders who helped to write it. So far so good, but that won’t count in the long term unless we also have outstanding teachers to teach it. Other countries are now doing all they can to follow our lead, such as Japan where it looks like from 2017 they will make computing compulsory for primary schools, and New Zealand where they will be doing the same. Even in the US where education policy is highly devolved, the Federal government is doing all it can to show strategic leadership and direct local communities towards teaching computer science as part of the K12 curriculum.

The road ahead

To stay ahead we need to make sure we have a supply of confident, enthusiastic, and highly qualified computing teachers who are better than anywhere else in the world. Well at least on that score we have the Computing At School Network of Excellence, run by BCS through a DfE grant, which has provided over 56,000 hours of high quality, high impact and low cost CPD to computing teachers in England in partnership with ten universities, over 300 CAS Master Teachers and working with over 1400 schools.

This year we also saw something like 60,000 students take GCSE Computer Science, compared to precisely 0 in 2010. That’s excellent as far as it goes, but our data also shows over 75% of the 14,000 computing teachers in secondary schools in England still do not feel as confident as they want to be. Let’s face the facts. Although there has been great progress so far, the UK needs to greatly increase the scale of its professional development for computing teachers if we really do want to lead the world as far as our school education system goes. This is not just our future we’re talking about, it’s our children’s future, so let’s not muck about, let’s give all of those computing teachers the support they need.

The education pipeline

We also need to think about the whole education pipeline right from primary school to graduate and apprenticeship level if we want to make sure our education system as a whole is the best it can be. Recently university Computer Science departments have come in for a certain amount of criticism, because of media headlines that purport to show Computer Science graduates find it hard to get jobs compared to graduates in other STEM related disciplines.

Whatever the merits or not of such opinions, the truth is we are no longer in a position post-Brexit where we can just sit on our laurels. We need to significantly invest in our university Computer Science education system so that not just 50% of the UK’s top software engineers are UK citizens, but at least 80% of them are. More than that we need to make sure those top graduates are also able to become top entrepreneurs, who create a virtuous cycle where knowledge turns into innovation and then turns into UK companies that create more UK jobs and more UK wealth. We should ask ourselves what will it take to have 30% of GDP created through Web based commerce in twenty years’ time?

Making IT good for society  

At BCS the one aspect of HE we can best help with is university degree accreditation, where we can in future ensure that accreditation leads to graduates who become able professionals with the right knowledge and skills to make sure the UK has the capacity to be truly world leading. That’s why we’ve been working closely with the independent, BIS commissioned Shadbolt review to make sure in future our accreditation support to universities achieves exactly that.

Britain is great, really it is when you compare it to the rest of the world. But we won’t stay great unless we invest in our education system and just as importantly invest in its capacity to create wealth through great inventions delivered through the web within a global digital economy.

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