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

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.
Written by Sam Shead, Contributor

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of academics said the more language skills a developer learns the better — but 14 percent said Cobol was uncool and outdated and that other modern languages were more exciting and useful.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in Ireland is one of the few universities teaching students Cobol, despite it being perceived by many students as out of date.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. 

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