Can't do, can't even teach

We all know the modern educational mantra. This sector of the economy is becoming more important, people must be educated in this sector of the economy, employ more of those who cannot do to teach them degrees in this sector of the economy. The problem here being that the world might not work this way. Sure, it’s true that increased human capital makes a society richer. Sure, it’s true that increasing human capital is a matter of knowledge and education. The hole in the argument is the consideration of whether a degree in something – a degree the way they’re taught today – is an increase in human capital.

It would appear not:

There are an estimated 100,000 plus jobs waiting to be filled in the tech sector, and almost half a million more to come in the next few years. So you would think that Britain’s computer science graduates, of whom we produce about 27,000 each year, would be the hottest ticket in town, in scorching demand from employers. But there is something rotten in the state of Britain’s education system. For six months after leaving university, the graduates with the highest rate of unemployment in this country are those who studied computer science, at nearly 14 per cent.

Pharmacologists, by comparison, have just a 3.5 per cent unemployment rate.

The point being that British universities seem to be pretty shit at training people in computer science. We’ve the entire world simply gagging for people who can code. People can, and do, hire foreigners they’ve never met, never will meet, on the basis that they can scrabble about in Javascript. My nephew has been known to scour Serbia – no really – for coders with the specific skills he wants. And yet the graduates of British universities in this subject cannot get jobs?

We rather need the Ecksian Solution here, don’t we? Or better yet, stop teaching the damn subject.

But then this isn’t anything all that new. Creative writing courses churn out those who cannot write anything people want to read. Nursing degrees create those who won’t nurse, preferring to be doctors manque. And Lord Knows what’s going to happen to the graduates of Islington Technical College given the education in economics they’re getting.

All of which is where the education to make us all richer argument breaks down. It’s as with the market failure and government argument itself. Sure, sometimes markets fail. Yup, there really is a role for government in correcting them. That doesn’t mean that government action will be better than market failure simply because government can – and often does – fail harder than markets. Sure increased human capital should make us richer, education is the route to that greater capital. But education in what by whom? The current system doesn’t appear to be providing it, does it?

It’s entirely possible that if the lecturers stay on strike and the computer science undergraduates use the time to instead to play with the settings on their laptops they’ll be more employable at the end of it. Not a great advertisement for computer science degrees.

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28 COMMENTS

  1. State bungling only makes crooks and arseholes better off.

    The main “achievement” of the state system is to allow itself to be taken over by cultural marxism. It is for that reason I call for a purge rather than the actual piss-poor performance of the actual educators.

    If some field requires brains, innovation, savvy etc –then it can’t really be taught beyond the bare mechanics. And state education as “drawing out” is a joke. Its feminisation alone guarantees that it is full of placewomen looking for the best way to get or stay in Daddy’s good books. The vast majority of those possessing the quality of enthusiasm ( which might fire up some of their young charges) are men. And men aren’t ever less wanted in education. They might be paedos or Whinesteins. after all

  2. “The point being that British universities seem to be pretty shit at training people in computer science. We’ve the entire world simply gagging for people who can code. ”

    It’s because Computer Science degrees are NOT about teaching people to code, they are glorified typing courses, today’s equivalent of “how to use a pen and paper”. It’s a blatent case of false advertising. It’s the bait-and-switch I fell foul of in the 1980s. What you expect to be taught in a course called Computer Science is actually taught in a course called Electrical Engineering. I mean, WTF??? You browse a prospectus and see “Electrical Engineering” and think “no, that’s not for me, I want to be programming computers an’ stuff, not wiring up houses, I need to be looking under ‘C’ for ‘Computing'”.

  3. It’s entirely possible that if the lecturers stay on strike and the computer science undergraduates use the time to instead to play with the settings on their laptops they’ll be more employable at the end of it.”

    And that’s another highlight. People bandy about “Computing” “IT” “ICT” “coding” without actually stating what they actually are talking about. The above “fiddling with the settings” is fine for going down the route to technician, but not programmer. Everybosy is lumping everying from “automotive design engineer” to “Sunday driver” under the one sole single term and expecting “we have to teach coding!!!!!!!!” is a valid scream because “many people need to be able to drive to the shops”.

    University Computing Science courses are the equivalent of plumbing or electrical fitter. Somebody who goes through the on-side guide and installs a standard circuit for a standard installation for a standard site.

    If the “IT” shortage really really really is a shortage of “IT fitters”, then come out and say it, and actually advertise for “people needs to carry boxes – that just happen to have a computer in – from one ond of the building to the other” – which does NOT need a degree.

    If the shortage really is a shortage of the IT equivalent of a person who can take a Victorian house with three floors each with a flat, and a shop, and a pottery workshop, and understands current carrying capacity and voltage drop and can calculate from first principles how the damn place needs to be wired up so it works, is safe, and complies, ***THEN*** universities need to be bloody well teaching that stuff, not the glorifies finger-painting the do at the moment, ***AND**** actually label the bloody courses correctly.

  4. Hopefully our infatuation with university, that it’s the only game in town, is beginning to fade. The provision of serious apprenticeships appears to have gained some momentum. I don’t know enough about the computer science business – the ability to code, to know if it’s a worthwhile career option or on a par with being a call centre worker. The couple of people I do know in the IT business made bundles, but that was two or more decades ago when there weren’t so many people in the business. I wonder if it’s a trade up thing, that the sort of people who were bright and chose to be nurses (for instance), now go to medical school and become doctors; ergo, the people who now join the nursing profession (or become computer science graduates) aren’t quite the thing.

  5. There’s a big problem that the courses are highly theoretical, generally to a degree that’s unnecessary.

    For instance, I read a tweet by a woman mentioning how courses are still teaching people how to calculate iterations of an algorithm. Now, this is theoretically useful. Back when we had Z80 and 6502 processors it was very useful. But, in a nutshell, in most software jobs, no-one cares. We weren’t even thinking about the efficiency of code on ICL mainframes in the 90s. Database I/O? Oh yeah. That mattered a lot. Still does. As does network traffic.

    What worked with the old BTEC courses is that there was a good connection between industry and teaching. They taught you COBOL when I did it. So we left college and most of my classmates became junior programmers. Employers wanted COBOL skills and respected the qualification. You were spade ready.

    • Actually O theory and estimating the efficiency of algorithms is probably the one part of the Science of Computation course which I consider a good thing for software developers to know. Whilst computers are faster the amount of data being processed is also growing and in many cases (but not all) you should pay a passing consideration to it (even if to dismiss it as not important in this use-case).

      If we want software engineers however we should be pushing software engineering degrees – or better still apprenticeships as most of the stuff learnt on a computer science course is academic theory.

      • In some applications the data is growing. In many it is not. Even for those applications with lots of data, you filter/sum on the server level with SQL Server before further processing. You work with a subset of data. I write OK code. I write for understanding mostly. Making it simple to understand and easier to test and more robust is far more important than reducing processor cycles. Because computer time is cheap and human time isn’t.

        And yes, comp sci makes little sense for most jobs.

        • @BOM4 Efficiency is something a lot of people care about, especially those who want their battery powered devices to last longer, and don’t appreciate having their gonads roasted whenever they put their phone back in their pocket. So O theory is a hot topic right now, and you won’t get a job anywhere like Google unless you can demonstrate you understand it, under severe time pressure.

  6. Reading that series of articles on tech, the Torygraph has unusually failed to conceal behind its paywall. The paltry number of commercial spin-offs the universities have managed to foster.
    My solution I’ve advanced before. Carpet bomb the lot. Bulldoze the rubble. Sow the ground with radioactive waste from the research reactors (If they still have any. If not, beg some from the Yanks). Start with Oxbridge, as it seems to be the spawning ground of so many useless, self-serving politicians. Make graduation in PPE a capital offence.

  7. Same experience, other way round.

    My 1980s Computer Science degree taught me lots of contemporary theory. eg 24 ways to sort a file and how the hidden line algorithm worked in 3D drawings.

    Lucky enough to get a job as a junior programmer, I was made productive in five weeks. Have barely used my BSc (Hons) since and I’m a fellow of the British Computer Society now. The best of my colleagues had all done BTECs in Programming.

    ps I twitch every time I hear that kids are IT experts. Using the electrical analogy above, all they can do is turn a few lights on at the same time.

  8. A course of lectures is a terrible way to learn to program. Either learn it by yourself (as all programmers my age did) or do an apprenticeship.

    A degree in computer science teaches some good and important stuff (though, in my experience, nothing like three years’ worth). But being able to program competently is a prerequisite, not something you can expect to learn on the job. It’s like attempting a degree in Literature without being able to read and write.

  9. Bernie G,

    Almost no-one is doing apprenticeships in software, or frankly much else. Go and look on the government’s website at what they class as “apprenticeships”. It’s often things like retail work, childcare. But then the government can say what a marvelous success they are.

    The problem is no indenture. No-one is going to spend thousands training a programmer who can walk the next day.

  10. Those who can, do. Those who can’t, teach. It’s never been more stark. The massive state subsidy fuelling the expansion of higher education has devalued and warped degrees. It’s time to go back to 10% graduates and direct the rest through proper vocational education instead of the Marxist brainwashing camps currently masquerading as universities.

  11. Bloke on M4,

    “Almost no-one is doing apprenticeships in software, or frankly much else.”

    I read a pull-out from the weekend’s Times that focuses on apprenticeships. (Neighbours had been chatting about their kids and I was taking an interest.) It was a guide to 50 firms offering the most higher and degree-level apprenticeships. Recruiters included JP Morgan and all of the big four professional services firms. Civil Service led the field with 974 positions across commercial, finance and technology roles. There were solicitor apprenticeships from M&S, to Dyson’s immersive engineering degrees and GCHQ’s cyber first and software engineering degree schemes – which pay apprentices £18,495 annually. BAE Systems were offering software development apprenticeships, Santander and IBM offering digital & technology solutions, likewise Capgemini, CGI, BT, Vodafone, Virgin Media, Cisco, National Grid, BBC… Sellafield, Siemens, Airbus, Rolls-Royce and others were all punting engineering apprenticeships.

    • Who sponsored that pullout? My guess is it’s the propaganda arm of whatever department is running apprenticeships, or the quango in charge of them.

      This is what the government always does when talking about apprenticeships. It shows all these excellent examples of them. They never seem to show jobs working in the kitchen at Pizza Hut, or working as a nursery nurse, or selling kitchens.

      Here’s some of the apprenticeships from Northampton (I picked from the start):-

      Apprentice Parts Operations Specialists at Mercedes-Benz. What we used to call Trainee Parts Department Lad.
      Light Vehicle Technician Apprentice. Trainee car mechanic.
      Apprentice Kitchen Team Member at Pizza Hut.
      Apprentice Shift Manager at Pizza Hut.
      Children and Young People’s Workforce Apprentice. Nursery Assistant.
      Hair Professional Apprentice. Trainee Hairdresser.
      Apprentice chef for Hamburger House. Burger flipper.
      Apprentice Warehouse Operative. Junior stock controller.
      IT Apprentice. Stripping down PC repair man.
      Business Administration Apprentice. Office trainee.
      Hair Professional Apprentice. Trainee Hairdresser.
      Apprentice Kitchen Assistant. Trainee baker.
      Plumbing apprenticeship.

      Those all count as apprenticeships on the government’s website. I think plumbing, car mechanic and maybe hairdresser would be classed by most people as that, but flipping burgers? getting stock in and out of a warehouse? That’s a job. There’s no big investment in training to get someone taking stuff in and out of the warehouse.

      There aren’t lots more apprenticeships, they’ve just allowed any unskilled job to be reclassified as an apprenticeship. So you read the colour supplement and think apprenticeship means CNC machinist or trainee engineer, and then you see the figures and think the government is making great strides.

      And many of those apprenticeships are companies that always had apprenticeships. RR have always had them. But RR know that someone who knows how to do a bit on an engine isn’t going to leave. Who are they going to work for?

  12. Tim I liked this para very much. Good writing. Thanks

    But then this isn’t anything all that new. Creative writing courses churn out those who cannot write anything people want to read. Nursing degrees create those who won’t nurse, preferring to be doctors manque. And Lord Knows what’s going to happen to the graduates of Islington Technical College given the education in economics they’re getting.

  13. It may well be that companies are not scouring Serbia in search of programmers because the British ones are unemployable. It may be that the British graduates are unemployed because companies prefer to bring in cheap Third World labour from places like the former Yugoslavia.

    I have said before that immigration is used to cover up the manifest failings of the British state – can’t get enough nurses? Don’t bother fixing the schools, import some Fillipinas. So the truth could be either.

  14. Computer Science hasn’t got much to do with computers, much of what happens in the more academic departments so named has strayed from the Maths Dept, and the remainder from Engineering. As for the less academic places, just buy a copy of Computing for Dummies. And programming —no it is not ‘coding’— is like writing or any other craft skill, you need some talent to begin with and then learn by doing, (but beware anyone who waffles on about such things being ‘creative’).

  15. “For six months after leaving university, the graduates with the highest rate of unemployment in this country are those who studied computer science, at nearly 14 per cent.

    Pharmacologists, by comparison, have just a 3.5 per cent unemployment rate.”

    As written it’s not obvious that you are comparing recent pharmacology grads with recent computer grads though I assume that is what is meant.

    It does seem that 86% of computer science grads are hired soon after graduation, so the course work can’t be all bad. Are the luckless grads disproportionately from just a few universities?

  16. And programming —no it is not ‘coding’— is like writing or any other craft skill, you need some talent to begin with and then learn by doing, (but beware anyone who waffles on about such things being ‘creative’).

    I beg to differ.

    You’re mixing up the 9-5 programmer that knows one way to do anything, and can cut & paste from Google for the rest; and the true hacker that strives for elegance in his code.

    Being a long-time Free Software developer I’d like to think I represent the latter…

    (Computer Science graduate, but spent most of my Uni time in the lab teaching myself to code. Everything above about Computer Science being maths, not programming, is true.)

  17. BiW: I’m with you. I have an ancient computing science degree, programmed for a while for Big Giant Oil of the USA, did lawyering for a while, invested in dirt, retired and now play with code.

    A nicely written recursive function to test for and instantiate as needed a multi level object is still beyond me. My code works but is kluge. But, soon, soon, I’ll get it down to a very few lines, and then, then, I’ll rule.

    The code is vital for my ‘Jobs list’ where I need to keep track my need to do a, because I need to do b, because I need to do c, und so weiter, all the way up to zzz: ‘because my wife told me to get it done’.

    It’s a stack, but elegant php and javascript code eludes me, so far.

    And yes, elegant code is possible in both those languages.