Timms: IT education key for a competitive UK

Competitiveness minister Stephen Timms has called for investment in IT education to plug the skills gap and help the UK compete globally

Young people need to become more enthused about science subjects and the possibilities of a career in IT to make the UK more competitive in the future, according to Stephen Timms, minister for competitiveness.

At the 2007 Parliament and the Internet Conference in Westminster on Thursday, the minister said schoolchildren's enthusiasm for computer games should be harnessed to encourage the development of skills in maths and science, the proliferation of which would eventually make the UK more competitive globally. The minister underlined the need for additional funding to encourage IT skills development.

"We need to get young people excited about maths and computing, and use the enthusiasm young people have for computer games to make them enthusiastic about maths and science," said Timms. "We've got a very big skills gap. Our most pressing challenge is competing in the global economy, so the biggest imperative is to raise the level of UK skills by investment in education."

Timms called on the IT community to help plug this skills gap. "We need computing science skills in the UK — not just broader science, but technical skills. I hope the community and others can help," said Timms.

The minister praised the work of e-skills UK, the government IT-sector skills council, and said that the government planned to follow the recommendations of the Leitch Report, which primarily advised funding as a solution to the skills problem.

"A whole panoply of things need to be done to provide people with the skills they need," said Timms.

Information security consultant David Lacey told ZDNet.co.uk that reliance on university education to give the right balance of computer science skills necessary for a job in IT was inadequate.

"At the moment the only real education available is at university, but training is the key, not [university] qualification," said Lacey. "University education in relatively new subject areas, like computer security, is hard because it takes a long time for a discipline to mature, and a lot of feedback to kick it into shape."

Lacey, the former director of information security for Royal Mail, called on the industry to implement staff IT training. "Training in industry is not good — companies just don't pay. [The industry is] just not doing enough. Someone has to put their hand in their pocket and pay for it," said Lacey.

However, Richard Clayton, a security expert at Cambridge University and an adviser to the government's Science and Technology Committee, said that it was a mistake to think that universities should provide training as opposed to education. "There's a difference between education and training," Clayton told ZDNet.co.uk. "Universities teach people how to think about and understand big issues. Training gives skills in, say, programming languages like Cobalt."

Clayton called for more women to be encouraged to enter the IT industry, and also for government backing.

"There were more women in computing when I went to university in the 1970s than now. That is a scandal. The fact this is not being addressed at the highest level is also a scandal," said Clayton.

David Evans, government relations manager for the British Computer Society, told ZDNet.co.uk that the IT industry could sometimes be its own worst enemy in not communicating enthusiasm. "The truth is IT is so important and jobs in IT can be so engaging to work in. We need to believe it and communicate that properly to create a sense of aspiration and a belief that IT can lead to exciting places," said Evans.