Silicon Fen or Silicon Fail? Securing the UK's future in the tech race - Photo by ThisisEngineering RAEng on UnsplashWith our friends across the Atlantic boasting innovation centres such as Silicon Valley, Stanford University and MIT, it’s no wonder that technology plays such a significant role in the US economy. It accounts for 10.5% of the nation’s overall GDP in 2020, or just shy of $2 trillion.

This isn’t to say the UK isn’t also a strong tech player. Indeed, large UK tech companies, many operating from locations like Cambridge and Manchester, helped attract investments of over $15 billion in 2020. That figure totalled more than that of Germany and France combined.

But with the global tech race accelerating, I believe the UK must do more to ensure it keeps pace with the US, China, and other nations. For me, that requires a steep revision of the way we are teaching technology courses at the higher education level.

What is wrong with technology education?

Currently, university technology courses in the UK are just not working hard enough to replicate the changing pace of the global industry. This rigidness leaves us with outdated curriculums that fail to prepare tomorrow’s software engineers.

The over-reliance on classroom learning, for instance, isn’t helping. As the founder of a technology business (4 Roads) that employs software engineers, I have seen it first-hand. Graduates come with a general understanding of the subject, but the lack of hands-on experience tends to hold them back.

How can the education sector solve this?

I would like to see more universities partnering with technology companies to deliver courses to counter this.

I don’t just mean practical work placements – I mean a partnership where companies are encouraged to write, shape and in part teach the curriculum so that it remains relevant to our fast-changing industry.  Education in technology should follow the same agile principles used during client projects.

Facebook and Google already offer notoriously competitive internship schemes. Why not get them involved earlier, where more people can benefit from their teachings? After all, they’re the ones at the coalface when it comes to technology innovation, at least in the realm of software engineering. By learning solely from academics, we’re neglecting the development of tomorrow’s tech experts.

This is one area the US is ahead in. Earlier this year, IBM created a $200m institute in partnership with the University of Illinois. It will have a focus on enabling students to work on complex global solutions in cloud computing, quantum technologies and AI. We need to see these types of partnerships replicated here.

How should education evolve?

The courses we teach are focused on broad understanding. A general computer science degree will look to cover a multitude of subjects such as programming, software design, AI, cloud computing, cyber security and mobile app development but then also things like UX design, web design, testing, ethics and project management.

Broad IT understanding is critical, don’t get me wrong. In my view, it needs to be taught in equal measure with specialised areas. What I mean is, when it comes to choosing a career direction as, say a developer, broader project management skills and intricate UX specific modules are much less relevant to learning the skills to do the role you are planning to take.

The reason being is there isn’t enough practical, hands-on learning, and this is the best way to gain these specialised skills. After all, technology innovation and development are moving at an incredible speed, so ‘general’ tech knowledge, whilst important, can only take a grad so far in the real world.

And it’s not just about strengthening the quality and breadth of teaching but also considering the duration of teaching.

Take a medicine degree, for instance. There’s a reason these courses are so long – because there is so much to learn, and the stakes of being underprepared in this area are so high.

Why is this important for the UK?

But the influence of the technology sector in underpinning our economy is continually growing (at an average rate of 7% of GVA contribution since 2016 to be precise). So why should we view technology courses any differently? In my mind, degree courses should be 5-6 years with a compulsory work experience element.

Too often computer science graduates, in my experience, just don’t have the practical experience required of businesses today. The situation is even more worrying from a national security standpoint.

GCHQ is already working overtime to keep the country protected. There’s no doubt that future wars will be fought via computers. There’s even talk now that it’ll be fought “from the stars” via satellites.

We have a responsibility to ensure that the next generation of cyber security experts are prepared for the challenge ahead of them.

Where to begin

Like other crucial economic sectors, the change must start with a committed investment in education systems. Government, tech businesses, and educational institutions must pull in the same direction.

This won’t come cheaply or quickly. But if we consider the bigger picture—and our country’s future—it’s an investment worth making.

4Roads4 Roads is a team of specialist designers, developers and social business strategists using technology to bring businesses and audiences closer.

By leveraging the latest technology, including artificial intelligence, voice recognition, knowledge management and more, it creates unique virtual spaces which truly empower customers – an approach it describes as Intelligent Self Service.

Established in 2007 by IT expert and Managing Director Rob Nash, this UK-based Intelligent Self Service agency counts Hitachi Vantara, The British Medical Association and Verint amongst its clients and is the longest standing global partner of Telligent Community.


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