Government 'could do better' on IT skills action plan

The government's latest plan, unveiled today to help develop IT qualifications for universities and schools, is likely to get caught up in red tape, say critics

While the government's new IT skills action plan is useful as a broad policy statement, fundamental legislative reform is necessary if the UK's IT industry is to become truly competitive, according to one expert.

On Tuesday, education secretary Ruth Kelly launched the sector skills agreement for IT, which will be co-ordinated by the E-Skills UK skills council and comprise 12 initiatives.

The scheme is being backed by an array of large companies that have spent the last year committing staff time, resources and funding to help develop IT qualifications for universities and schools in a bid to make courses more relevant to market requirements. Greenwich, Reading, Central England and Northumbria Universities will be the first to offer the new courses, taking on 1,000 students by the end of the year, although the aim is to roll them out to a further 18 higher education establishments by the end of 2008.

British Airways, Cisco, EDS, Ford, IBM, Norwich Union, Morgan Stanley and Lehman Brothers are among those large employers that have agreed to continue contributing to the scheme in a bid to address the skills gaps in their workforces and to try and ensure that the profession attracts the brightest and the best.

But Rod Flavell, chief executive of FDM, which handles IT staffing, training and professional services, said: "Gordon Brown [the Chancellor] has saddled us with so much red tape along with the EU that there's a huge lag before we even get started compared to our rivals offshore. If this is about reducing the productivity gap, what are we going to do about industry regulation?"

Among the biggest bugbears are the IR35 contractor regulations that "made the ability of IT staff to be independent very difficult and expensive" and the latest employment agencies act, "which is genuinely very contradictory".

"Quite what the rationale of a government that creates these laws is if they want a leaner and meaner economy, I don't know. We've seen these types of initiatives before and I just wonder how root and branch the proposed changes will be. It's a great idea, but the devil is in the detail and we have to understand how it's going to work in a framework of very bureaucratic legislation," Flavell said.

Another issue, he believes, is one of sustainability. "One problem that these initiatives tend to suffer from is long-term commitment. It's good for companies to sign their names to them, but in two to three years time will it be the same HR or IT director that's signed up now and will they have the same commitment as a result of changing business pressures?" Flavell questioned.