The revolution in UK universities is leaving its mark on IT-focused higher education courses, and it's an overhaul that has accelerated in the last couple of years.
A new breed of postgraduate courses that combine an academic qualification with a theoretical IT grounding, real-life business experience and even certification on vendor-specific software packages is emerging to bridge the gap between what academia has traditionally offered, and what the IT industry actually wants.
That's good news, not just for young people leaving university, but also for experienced IT professionals looking to acquire new skills.
There's something fundamental behind the shift. Traditional IT courses simply aren't making the grade. Courses have long been criticised for being out of touch with the industry's needs. One piece of damning research published last year blamed the gaping chasm on the fact that a significant percentage of IT lecturers had never worked in the industry.
Even high-profile academics such as Sir Christopher Ball, chancellor of the University of Derby, recognise that higher education is in a proverbial rut. "Universities represent a status quo that is failing us," he warns.
The knock-on effect
The need to move beyond prescriptive, static teaching methods to embrace new approaches to learning has never been greater. It's no wonder then that recruiters are feeling a knock-on effect in terms of the quality of graduates being churned out into the IT industry.
Jenny Collyer, course organiser for an MSc multimedia systems course at London Guildhall University, says: "The market certainly wants a more vocational approach, although they still want people to be educated.
"Masters degrees used to be a primer for a PhD. Now they're there to provide competitive edge to students. Employers want students to be able to research and report back, but they also want them to be able to use the software and be innovative, not to mention the interpersonal skills they want."
Although the alignment has implications for IT education as a whole, the main thrust, particularly of the Masters courses on offer, is to offer people considering a career change the opportunity to 'hit the ground running'.
Last month, Sheffield Hallam University launched careerMSc.com, an MSc in information technology and management or business intelligence.
It includes industry experience through work placements and professional certification through partnerships with software suppliers SAP, Oracle, SAS Institute and Sterling Software. The course extends from a partnership with SAP that dates back to October 1998.
Geoff Cutts, head of postgraduate programmes and the brains behind Sheffield Hallam's careerMSc course, is reluctant to criticise his peers in academia, but says that the course was developed to fill some significant shortcomings in the status quo.
"The industry training gives students the most up-to-date qualifications -valuable skills the industry wants. Marry these to an education of personal and professional development and you get something that is highly desirable and tremendous value for money," he adds.
Time for a rethink
Anyone who's had any experience of IT education will appreciate the significance of this evolution. Not generally known for its knee-jerk reactions, and often criticised for its reluctance to adapt quickly to changing market conditions, this marks nothing short of a total rethink of the way IT education is approached.
Phil Bond, managing director of SAS Institute UK and Ireland, one of Sheffield Hallam's partners in the venture, says: "It's not so much that there's a shortage of IT skills out there. It's applying that knowledge in a business environment to solve real business problems that's lacking."
Munir Ismet, education and health sales manager at Oracle, says: "The world of technology is changing so quickly it's forcing companies to change at a rate that they would never have thought possible. We want people who understand technology but who can translate that technology to the business world. The industry is crying out for this and you only have to look at the job adverts to realise it."
The official third party endorser of the Sheffield course is leading business practitioner Rhiannon Chapman, formerly director of the Industrial Society and ranked 15th in the UK's top 40 influencers in HR management by Personnel Today magazine.
"There's a classic dichotomy between the academia and the IT world ? the business world is fast changing and those things get up an academic's nose. Businesses aren't used to long-term payback - they expect something within the business year or at least within a three-year business plan," says Chapman.
Perhaps that's why few universities have wholeheartedly made the move to embrace the concept. "There are very few business people and academics who would feel comfortable in this environment," explains Chapman.
But the IT skills shortage, coupled with heightened demand for industry-ready graduates, should spur the wheels of change into action. IDC figures indicate that there will be 300,000 unfilled IT jobs in the UK by 2003. Until we see a radical shift in the eagerness of companies to train their recruits, the argument for courses that not only give you an academic qualification, but also mean you're almost immediately operational in a business environment, is compelling.
There are wider implications, according to Chapman. She believes the reluctance of universities to keep pace with change is hampering UK competitiveness in the information age. She also criticises those "seriously backward academics who have failed to recognise that the single honours, three-year degree straight out of public school simply isn't enough".
From the student perspective, Sheffield Hallam's sales pitch isn't bad either. "If a student looking to do an MSc has a choice of a course from Sheffield Hallam or another university, but the course at Sheffield will give some sort of certification as well, that's a big incentive," Cutts says. "It's a career boost."
Not surprisingly, competition for places on the Sheffield course is stiff, despite its £9000 price tag. The school received 300 applications for a meagre 40 places on its first SAP course. Considering that a five-week SAP certification course will set you back more than £6000 it's not bad value for money, says Clive Griffin, a Sheffield Hallam old boy who now works as an SAP consultant for Big Five firm KPMG.
Today around 40 per cent of students are sponsored by companies. Big SAP and Oracle users are particularly keen to follow this route, with companies in the banking and finance sectors leading the way, and the IT skills shortage is forcing many more to consider following their example.
Most candidates are strongly motivated by the long-term financial gain to be reaped from the ensuing qualification, although stories of telephone-book salaries for SAP consultants aren't as prevalent as they used to be.
However, Cutt warns: "We might say no thanks to someone who just wants the training. We tell them to go directly to the vendor. They have to want to develop themselves as individuals - it's lifelong learners we want."
But is the certification element in Sheffield's course a double-edged sword? In the whirlwind that is the IT industry, it's difficult to predict which suppliers will be here tomorrow, let alone guess to any degree of success which companies will be market leaders.
"It's a perceived risk when you go on the course," admits career MSc graduate Griffin. "I thought I may have missed the crest of the SAP wave, but at least I'm on the right beach."
The right grounding?
Some argue there's a stronger case for courses that provide a more generic grounding, which prevent students being forced in any particular direction.
John Eary at Skills Source, the training and recruitment services division of the National Computing Centre (NCC), warns: "There's a danger that courses can become too vendor-influenced. In SAP's case, for example, demand has peaked. There's a danger that supply for SAP experts could outstrip demand."
Griffin says: "It's invariably the non-IT issues, such as change management, that cause the problems in IT implementations. But a course of this nature allows you to apply principles to new domains. It's been easy for me to adapt."
But even though Cutts believes his course prepares individuals for employment far better than any other course on the market, he warns there's no guarantee of a job at the end of it.
"I'd say 80 per cent have jobs related to the field they studied, but it's not a passport," Cutts warns. "It's a calculated risk. If you have a good job, to say you'll walk away, spend £9000 and be out of work for a year is a hard decision."
Cutts, ever on the look-out for a lucrative partnership, hints that a further tie-up in the networking arena is imminent. "That would put the whole portfolio to bed."
That's not to say Cutts doesn't have other ideas up his sleeve. "The next challenge is to make it web enabled and take the course global. That's certainly an ambition," he says.
In the money
Ultimately, companies shouldn't see a postgraduate course as an alternative to investing in staff training and a means to save money on their personal development.
Stuart Nolan, interactive TV consultant at Oyster Partners (oyster.co.uk), the web design and integration company behind the Number 10 Downing Street and MTV Europe's sites, is trying a novel approach to the industry/academia rift, which he believes will reap the benefits of both.
"Universities tend to be more free and less implicated in big projects, giving time to think about problems," Nolan says.
"We're considering finding a good graduate who wants to work in the industry but also carry on in academia, a sort of research fellow approach. That would give us the benefit of a mix of cultures."
|Postgraduate courses: the details|
|Sheffield Hallam University|
Course name: MSc information technology and management or MSc business intelligence
Course details: A Masters degree course which also includes certification in SAP, Sterling Software of Oracle
Average student age: 35
Employment success rate: "About 80 per cent of students are now working in areas relating to the course content."
Condition for entry: First degree and ideally some business experience
How long course has been running: First intake was October 1998
Course format: 24 weeks full-time at the university, leading to a postgraduate diploma in information technology and management. Certification using training facilities at the university and a four-month placement and dissertation
For more information: www.careerMSc.com
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