University calls for greater IT industry engagement

Universities are calling on IT vendors to make a greater investment in the tertiary sector to tackle the skills crisis.

Universities are calling on IT vendors to make a greater investment in the tertiary sector to tackle the skills crisis.

If you had any doubts about the extent of the IT skills crisis, said Patrick Woods, deputy vice chancellor at Sydney's University of Technology, consider the following: UTS chooses to deploy new platforms not only on the basis of their quality, but on whether they are confident there are enough qualified staff to work with it.

Woods is calling on IT vendors to put their money where their mouth is when it comes to the skills crisis.

"There needs to be greater involvement of industry with the university sector," Woods told ZDNet Australia.

This investment, he said, can range from the provision of scholarships, to in-kind support, to research co-operation. Woods even advocates the sponsorship of platform-specific tuition for any vendor that wants a guaranteed workforce around their solutions.

He sees the skills shortage from the perspective of both an educator and an end-user. Woods is frustrated that he can't find enough qualified staff, for example, for the university's business intelligence and data warehousing projects.

"If I'm having difficulty finding business intelligence skills in the marketplace for my own use, then Business Intelligence vendors should be coming to the table to work with us on the creation of a curriculum that includes their tool," he said.

Woods said larger IT vendors "understand the engagement model" to work with the tertiary education sector, but smaller and newer vendors "don't always understand the payback on the investment they make in us".

UTS has a strong relationship with SAP, for example, which provides the University's business facility with in-kind support software as a "real live tool" for accounting students to learn their trade.

"We want as many [vendors] as practicable to deal with us," Woods said. "It might sound cheesy, but we want them to help us help them."

Professor Paul Bailes, head of the School of Information Technology and Electrical Engineering at the University of Queensland agrees that more industry participation is vital to address the skills shortage -- but doesn't see vendor-specific courses as the right means to go about it.

"If a software supplier wants more experts in its particular technology, that specific level of education should arguably be taught in the vocational sector rather than at university," he said.

UQ instead gives students credit for vendor-sponsored courses (for a Microsoft MCP or Cisco Academy course, for example) completed elsewhere.

But Woods argues that platform-specific courses, when combined with general curriculum create "work-ready" graduates.

"That's our whole aim as a university," he said. "What we give them is an ability to problem solve and add value to their employer. The student comes out with a specific skill they can use and a skill that is transferable."

Is an endowed chair the solution?
Bailes said UQ would prefer, by contrast, that the technology industry undertake "corporate citizenship" projects such as scholarships and "endowed chairs".

"There is a lot to be said for the ICT industry taking a leaf out of the book of the engineering industry, particularly mining," Bailes said. "There was a shortage of skills in the mining industry a few years ago, and the government and industry got together to develop a very high profile campaign, providing incentives to do engineering."

"That's the kind of gap we are trying to close in the ICT industry."

There are 10 endowed chairs (professorships) in the engineering field at UQ that are funded by industry. There is a Boeing chair, for example, in Systems Engineering.

"That professor teaches courses around the systems domain, but much of it is applicable to the aerospace industry," Bailes explains. "Boeing in return gets an educated workforce, a place where it can send its own people to learn, and a chance to hire new staff."

"It would be great if we could see more of that from the ICT industry," he said.

UQ is currently undertaking a new campaign to attract school leavers to its ICT courses -- offering an undisclosed number of AU$2,000 scholarships to university applicants.

University tests show, Bailes said, that young people need a direct incentive to consider a career in technology straight after high school.

"This is an initiative the University is taking to give students something substantial. It's an enabling scholarship, which maybe can be used to tool-up a student before they start at university. Two thousand dollars buys you a very nice laptop."

"We'll give as many scholarships as we can afford," he said. "There's certainly no lower limit. It's the University's indication of commitment to the future of the ICT industry in Australia."