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UK must fix 'long-running weakness' in digital skills, says report

A lack of digital skills is costing the UK £63 billion a year in lost GDP, the UK parliament's Science and Technology Committee has said.14 Jun 2016

An estimated 12.6 million adults in the UK lack basic digital skills and 5.8 million people have never used the internet. Only 35% of computer teachers in schools have a relevant degree because 30% of the required number of computer science teachers have not been recruited, the Committee said.

The Committee blamed a "long-running weakness" in the UK's approach to the problem, and called for digital skills to be made one of the core components in all apprenticeships, not just those that are specifically "digital apprenticeships". The apprenticeship scheme process also needs to be simplified to encourage small business to participate, it said.

Universities should provide advice on digital careers to students, led by industry, and include "code conversion courses" to help graduates from non-computer science backgrounds to enter the technology sector, the Committee said.

The government should set up an employers' forum to gain feedback on the computer curriculum in schools, and Ofsted should include the curriculum in its inspections. The qualifying requirements for visas for "shortage occupation" IT jobs visas must also be reviewed, it said.

The government needs to establish an "effective pipeline" of individuals with specialist skills in data science, coding and a broader scientific workforce that is equipped with a firm grounding in mathematics, data analysis and computing, the Committee concluded. 

An annual check of all of its initiatives on digital skills against the economic demand for those skills would help the government to assess the effectiveness of measures.

Current computer science teaching in universities also needs to change to suit the needs of industry, the Committee said. Computer science graduates have one of the highest unemployment rates of any degree subject, with 13% of students still unemployed six months after graduating, compared with an average of 8% across all subjects.

IT graduate employer FDM Group told the Committee that "there is a serious mismatch between what is taught in schools and universities and what businesses require".

"Current teaching in universities is devoid of commercial reality and does not have a strong enough commercial aspect. Graduates are emerging from degrees with a broad knowledge of IT theory but no in-depth technical understanding of particular disciplines or the professional skills needed for a career in the sector," it said.

However, other possible factors were also suggested, including a tendency for employers to recruit computer science graduates from a small group of universities, as unemployment rates vary from one institution to another.

A gender disparity in recruitment also needs to be addressed, the Committee said, with women making up only 17% of IT professionals. The government needs to work with employers and educators to understand and address the factors that prevent female students in schools, colleges and universities from applying for digital courses and careers, it said.

The report called on the government to publish its digital strategy as soon as possible. The government has delayed publication until after the EU referendum later this month.

The National Audit Office reported in December that there is a digital skills gap with UK government itself.

The NAO surveyed 36 "digital leaders" within central government departments and arm's length agencies in August and found that many of those organisations lack board members with experience on digital or IT strategies and operations or on "IT enabled change".

The digital leaders surveyed included chief information officers, chief technology officers and chief digital officers within government departments and agencies.