Universities won't teach 'uncool' Cobol anymore - but should they?

Universities won't teach 'uncool' Cobol anymore - but should they?

Summary: A new poll of university course leaders has revealed that students aren't being taught legacy programming languages like Cobol, even though they know businesses want it.

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Universities are failing to teach students old computer programming languages that are still used by businesses today, according to new research.

One of the main languages being left off university curriculums around the world is Cobol, a programming language that first appeared in 1959 and is used to build applications for everything from ATM transactions to patient care.

A poll released today of academic leaders from 119 universities worldwide found that 73 percent of academics running IT courses do not teach the Cobol programming language on their curriculum, despite 71 percent believing that today's businesses will continue to rely on applications built using Cobol for at least the next 10 years. 

When asked how they felt about teaching Cobol, 60 percent of academics said the more language skills a developer learns the better — but 14 percent said Cobol was uncool and outdated and that other modern languages were more exciting and useful.

The University of Limerick in Ireland is one of the few universities teaching students Cobol, despite it being perceived by many students as out of date. 

Michael Coughlan, a lecturer from the University of Limerick's computer science and information systems department, told ZDNet on Wednesday that it's important to teach students Cobol to fill a gap in IT skills. "The number of Cobol programmers around the world is declining because they're retiring and dying," he said. "But the Cobol systems are still there so they have to be maintained."

The research, carried out by Vanson Bourne on behalf of Micro Focus, found that most computer science students entering the job market last year were Java programmers, followed by C# and C++ programmers. According to Micro Focus, Cobol underpins 85 percent of all daily business transactions.

Learning Cobol gives students a different perspective on the whole idea of programming languages, according  to Coughlan, but it has traditionally been left up to businesses to teach computer science graduates how to use the language. 

The majority of universities don't teach Cobol on computer science-related courses because it is not a very intellectually-challenging language, according to Coughlan. "Universities never liked it because it's very verbose and it didn't fit in with the mathematical model as it's not a mathematically-oriented language," he said. 

For example, Oxford University told ZDNet it doesn't teach Cobol because it's an old language that isn't used much now. "It has been superseded by more modern languages that make programming easier," Oxford University computer science lecturer Gavin Lowe said.

Computer science undergraduates use Java the most because it's a fairly common language with good support, he added.

"However, we're gradually using Scala more, because it's a more modern language, providing more powerful support to programmers — to allow them to concentrate on the ideas behind the program rather than the mechanics and because it avoids some of the mistakes in the design of the Java language," he added.

E-skills, the IT sector skills council in the UK, also failed to acknowledge Cobol as an in-demand computing language when it spoke to ZDNet at the start of this year. 

Topics: IT Employment, United Kingdom, Education

Sam Shead

About Sam Shead

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20 comments
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  • Fortran > Cobol :-)

    Not a surprise - colleges are tasked with readying students for the future, not filling some niche position for companies unwilling or unable to move forward. Let the companies still relying on 1st gen languages to do the skills transfer.
    beau parisi
  • Re: 1st gen languages

    Not sure I agree. Yes, there should be e consideration for the future, but givenwe really can't tell in this environment what the future brings, a nice mix of languages would prepare grads for a job now whilst they continue to adjust to whatever's coming down the pike. Companies are not always unwilling to move forward - unable is presumably a better term - given the capital investment in physical and software resources. Some applications are oft times better realized in languages other than C, Java, or whatever. The argument that replacement is necessitated by newness rather than utility doesn't always work - the fork 'replaced' the chopstick, but both continue to co-exist quite happily - and with the productivity demanded by the user. (And there is a learning curve in using the chopstick - sometimes the 'simplest' constructs are the more difficult at appreciate.
    earljgray
  • My Computer Education

    In 1971 a group of talented high school math students and I learned BASIC. In spring 1974, there was a chapter in a high school class on COBOL. As there was no computer to run it on, the lessons faded quickly. In 1974, I started college. We were taught WATFIV (a Fortran IV), BASIC (the preferred language for Humanist Sciences), PL/1, 8088 assembly, and some domain specific languages for taking algebraic formulas and getting output as graphing on a glorified oscilloscope. Now, the school, a UC, was engineering and math oriented, so COBOL, as the driver of mainframe payrolls (and these weren't exactly ubiquitous), did not come up, except in a general survey course of languages, focusing mostly on different approaches to binding, scoping and control.

    COBOL hasn't been cool since the late 1960s, and unlike its 1950s cousins, LISP and FORTRAN, has never had anything resembling a revival.

    Plus any one complaining about a shortage of COBOL programmers should hire good people and teach them the language while some of the veterans are still here. This complaint about teaching COBOL isn't about academia's alienation from the real world as much as it businesses trying to pass costs along to education, who are frequently in the public sector.

    I also think that learning the language is hardly enough. One has to work with a language and find and become facile with — just as with natural languages — the idioms. 13 weeks on COBOL seems both an over-emphasis and hardly the maker of cracker jack maintainers.

    Wouldn't it be, hasn't it been easier to encapsulate the COBOL code and use modern languages to write adaptive interfaces?
    DannyO_0x98
  • I think it should be offered

    But if there's a shortage of Cobol programmers, then the best thing employers can do is to train some themselves instead of relying on universities or governments to do it for them.
    John L. Ries
    • The purpose of college is marketable job skills

      Instead of telling the employer what they should want, it is your job to be what they are looking for..period.
      TrishaDishaWarEagle
      • The purpose of college is to make better citizens

        Should colleges train students how to screw people over? That's a highly desirable skill required by employers, so in your world, that's what we should be teaching our kids. TRULY SICK.
        jackbond
  • Businesses should know that they get what they pay for

    And if businesses don't pay for it, they shouldn't expect it.

    I'm surprised that the columnist didn't do a quick job search on Dice, Monster, or LinkedIn for COBOL-specific jobs. I did a quick look on LinkedIn, saw only one job that could be called software engineering and mentioned COBOL, and that's for "a Windows shop running JAVA, with most code written in COBOL. "
    Reality-based
  • Job Security for Old Farts?

    COBOL is winding down but there is legacy code out there that still needs support. Certainly those applications are migrating into contemporary languages, so adaptive veterans and flexible rookies will find interesting work mining valuable business rules from COBOL code for awhile yet.
    Smedley54
    • Lots of big old systems still exist

      Here in the UK I can point at a number of very large systems written in COBOL which will not be migrated for any foreseeable future. There is so much working code the cost of re-writing is considered uneconomic. These systems are maintained by the Old Farts so described, who are making a ton of cash to supplement their pensions, all strength to them.
      But these systems are making space to train up some newbies - but its very local and teaching COBOL for a general reason is not worth it unless they know they are going to a COBOL house next.
      So drop it I reckon
      sonnet37
  • Not suprising

    In many ways, universities are more concerned about the professors and administrators rather than the students. If there is earning potential for people with Cobol skills, it should be taught. But instead the profs don't want to be bored and would rather teach cool, new, esoteric languages that no one uses in the real world.

    And universities are letting kids choose majors and courses that are more like hobbies rather than having them learn actual real world skills.
    fafafooey
    • Amen

      Could not agree more
      TrishaDishaWarEagle
      • Our society should be structured to appease foreign corporations!

        ja wohl, mein Fuhrer!!!
        jackbond
  • Its the learning not the language

    When I graduated from Edinburgh Uni in 1986 I went out to get a job and only discovered at that point that 95% of the code in the UK was written in COBOL. At uni I had been taught over 15 languages and not one of them was COBOL. I had the chance to question one of the heads of the CS department a couple of years later and asked why they didn't teach COBOL. The reply was that they weren't there to teach me languages - they were there to teach me how to learn languages. A valid argument, but would it have killed them to make one of the languages COBOL so that it vastly increased my empolyment prospects?
    StephenInScotland
  • Universities should prepare professionales for real life

    In my opinion the success of an IT professional is measured in its ability to learn-unlearn-relearn different technologies and languages. The IT industry will be evolving forever, and the specific language skills you learn while studying at an university will likely be deprecated by the time you enter the work force. That's why I believe that the most important skill an IT professional must master is the ability to adapt and learn quickly. When I was in college I learned mostly Java, and everybody though it was going to be the only language in the future, and look how it has turned out: people still use Cobol, C, and there are also many new languages on the field. If you marry just one technology, one day you are going to find yourself out of work, cause no technology last forever, and I would find it really boring if it didn't were that way, one of the main reasons I decided to make a career in IT its because it is a dynamic field.
    ivanev25
  • Universities should prepare professionales for real life

    In my opinion the success of an IT professional is measured in its ability to learn-unlearn-relearn different technologies and languages. The IT industry will be evolving forever, and the specific language skills you learn while studying at an university will likely be deprecated by the time you enter the work force. That's why I believe that the most important skill an IT professional must master is the ability to adapt and learn quickly. When I was in college I learned mostly Java, and everybody though it was going to be the only language in the future, and look how it has turned out: people still use Cobol, C, and there are also many new languages on the field. If you marry just one technology, one day you are going to find yourself out of work, cause no technology last forever, and I would find it really boring if it didn't were that way, one of the main reasons I decided to make a career in IT its because it is a dynamic field.
    ivanev25
  • COBOL and COBOL programmers are in decline

    I have seen the decline in COBOL opportunities after coding in COBOL for 22 years. Anyone who says otherwise isn't living in the real world. While it is true that COBOL programmers are disappearing as they retire each year, some are misinterpreting that to mean COBOL has a future.

    COTS solutions have been and shall continue to take a toll on the COBOL codebase out there, even in the diehard stalwarts of the Mainframe and COBOL (banks and government).

    If COBOL alone were such an in, then employers should be beating down my door, and they are not. What employers really want and need are those with the Mainframe platform experience, but they misidentify this as COBOL experience. I have experience on three Mainframes: Unisys 2200, Unisys MCP, and HP NonStop. Experience on Big Blue (IBM z-Series) still eludes me, but some employers are starting to look at those with COBOL experience in the belief that one can learn the particular Mainframe environment.

    Fewer COBOL programmers could mean an increasingly lucrative future for COBOL programmers, in the near term, but analytical tools that extract business rules will be the death of many large COBOL systems.
    DoctorKennyG
  • The medical departments no longer teach the use of Leeches.

    Some children are no longer taught to sharpen a writing quill.
    Henry 3 Dogg
  • Universities are not Vocational Training Schools

    If you want to learn Cobol, learn from a good Cobol programmer, then practice, practice, practice. Universities do not teach practical skills, they teach their own particular brand of thinking, at best a way to evaluate a subject before it is reduced to practice, at worst a way to distract attention from the subtle clues of materials, markets, and human interaction.

    A 12 year old can download opencobol, write a few programs, then forget about it. When they graduate with their master's degree a decade later, they can add "10 years of cobol experience" to their resume. Even if the interviewer has no need for Cobol, you can bet that will generate some interesting conversation, and might even earn an apprenticeship to one of the gray eminences of an organization still enmired in the stuff. The "apprentice" can teach the "master" newer languages, they can work together to begin porting the legacy code, and the apprentice can zoom up the ladder faster than their less agile and less connected colleagues.

    Universities do not teach this kind of strategic thinking - you've got to bring it to school with you, and not let them beat it out of you. Schools have a lot to teach, but you won't learn many critical job skills there (unless you were too lazy to learn them in grade school and high school).

    Reality - it isn't on the test.
    Keith Lofstrom
  • It should be offered

    Well I think it should be offered but the tutors must be trained well so that they can clear the concepts of students.
    (http://neededitskills.tumblr.com) This is one other article that shows that cobol can be beneficial fot students
    Katty Parker
  • Cobol and other 1st Gen languages!

    I have a friend who owns a placement service for programmers. He has jobs on his board that are as old as 4 years needing programmers that are fluent in the old languages! He has one job that is based on a machine specific language that has jobs that go back 6 years +! My advice sure learn the new languages! But if you are a savy programmer/Business man learn the off beat stuff! There is a ton of work out there! BTW the 2 programmers who just happen to know that machine specific language pull down per hour what most programmers make per week!
    Ray
    RRUSS45826@...