The evidence is clear that the UK faces a digital skills crisis. Although comparative nations are facing similar challenges, only urgent action from industry, schools and universities and from the Government can prevent this skills crisis from damaging our productivity and economic competitiveness. The Government deserves credit for a range of effective interventions launched over the last Parliament but only the computing curriculum and widespread take-up of digital apprenticeships offer game-changing potential, and their impact may not be evident for a generation. Given the scale of the digital skills crisis we face as a nation, it is time for further action. The Government’s imminent Digital Strategy needs to go further than drawing together cross-government digital activity, it needs to offer genuine leadership and vision for the future of digital skills and our digital economy.
Digital skills are becoming increasingly essential for getting access to a range of products and services. However, there is a digital divide where up to 12.6 million of the adult UK population lack basic digital skills. An estimated 5.8 million people have never used the internet at all. This digital skills gap is costing the UK economy an estimated £63 billion a year in lost additional GDP.
The skills gap presents itself at all stages in the education and training pipeline, from schools to the workplace. An audit of IT equipment in schools found that 22% of it is ineffective. Only 35% of ICT teachers hold a relevant qualification. The Government has been able to recruit only 70% of the required number of computer science teachers into the profession. The UK will need 745,000 additional workers with digital skills to meet rising demand from employers between 2013 and 2017, and almost 90% of new jobs require digital skills to some degree, with 72% of employers stating that they are unwilling to interview candidates who do not have basic IT skills. Two-thirds of ‘datavore’ businesses report that they have struggled to fill at least one vacancy when trying to recruit analysts over a 12 month period, and 93% of tech companies find that the digital skills gap affects their commercial operations. As a result of emerging technologies, there is also a growing demand for high level digital skills in areas such as cyber security, cloud and mobile computing and data analytics. Despite the vacancies, however, some 13% of computer science students are still unemployed six months after graduating.
In this Report, we have examined how the digital skills crisis is being experienced in the workplace, schools and in higher education.
It is essential for the UK to have the IT professionals it needs to build a robust digital economy. The average advertised salary in digital roles is just under £50,000—36% higher than the national average. The workforce, from highly skilled scientists to workers in manufacturing, are affected by the rapid changes in the use of technology in the workplace. There is a lack of awareness of career opportunities within the digital sector, sometimes reflecting skill and gender stereotypes around the types of roles that exist. Many organisations are not maximising the potential of new digital technologies or utilising the skills and talents of their employees in the most productive way. Almost 50% of employers have a digital skills gap, which includes specialist technical roles.
The recommendations from the Shadbolt and Wakeham reviews of computer science and STEM degrees may go some way in reducing the shortage of tech specialists, but other immediate solutions should also be considered. The Government should work with the Tech Partnership to develop industry-led, vocationally focussed digital careers advice in universities, and encourage universities to provide ‘code conversion courses’ to help graduates from non-computer science backgrounds to enter the tech sector. The Government should also clarify the full extent of ‘Equivalent and Lower Level Qualifications’ exemptions for STEM subjects. Digital skills should be one of the core components, alongside maths and english, in all apprenticeships, not just ‘digital apprenticeships’, making it the focus of its 3 million apprenticeships target. This will help to ensure the long-term future of the UK’s economy, as would simplifying the apprenticeship scheme’s processes to encourage SMEs to invest in them. The qualifying requirements for the new IT roles under the Tier 2 visa should be reviewed, making it easier and more flexible for employers to recruit the best talent globally.
There has been a gradual shift to digital technology in schools. To help meet the future demands of a digital economy, the Government launched the computing curriculum in September 2014, which introduced ‘computer science’ at GCSE level, and discontinued ‘ICT’. The new computing curriculum is world leading and, properly taught, has the capacity to transform the digital skills potential of the next generation. The ICT curriculum did not provide the skills that industry and higher education value. Despite support for the transition, many ICT teachers still do not have the qualifications or the knowledge to teach the computing curriculum. Given the pace of technological advances, it will always be a challenge for schools to keep up with the latest innovations. As digital skills are increasingly becoming essential for many industrial sectors, schools will have to invest in offering high quality computer science options and upskilling teachers to deliver them. The Government should request Ofsted to include the computing curriculum in their inspections and require schools to deliver credible, sustainable plans for embedding computing. Schools should look for innovative ways to boost capacity through coding clubs and other informal learning opportunities offered by industry leaders.
To ensure digital education in schools continues to keep pace with business needs, the Government should work with the Tech Partnership to establish a regular forum for employers to raise and discuss their priorities for ensuring the computing curriculum and its teaching stay up to date, and to help ensure that other school subject qualifications provide a foundation for a broader range of digital careers. The ICT streams of the Teach First and Master Teachers initiatives should be scaled up to help deliver the number of teachers needed for the long term health of UK digital education.
Ministers accept that it is vital that Government coordinates a coherent strategy to address the digital skills crisis at all stages in the education and training pipeline. Accordingly, we cannot understand why the Government has delayed for so long the publication of its Digital Strategy. In the absence of further details, there is a doubt that it will give sufficient weight to the vital areas for change that we have highlighted in our inquiry. The gap between the digital skills that children and young people take into their working lives and the missing skills actually needed for the digital economy demonstrate a long-running weakness in the UK’s approach to developing digital skills. Initiatives currently in train will help to fill that gap, but the forthcoming Strategy should be more than just a catalogue of initiatives. It needs also to be more than just a programme of work for Government departments. We need to change the UK’s cultural perception of digital technology. By setting out a vision for the future, to be delivered by collaborative work between industry, educators and Government, the Strategy should be more than the “aspirational” document that ministers propose—it should be a Strategy that actually delivers.
The Digital Strategy should be published without further delay. It should take into account the recommendations from both the Shadbolt and Wakeham reviews. It should include dynamic mapping of public sector and industry initiatives and public spending on digital skills against the economic demand for those skills, and benchmarks and defined outcomes that are necessary to measure levels of success and decide on next steps. There should be goals for developing better basic digital skills, for increasing the number and diversity of students studying computer science, and for increasing digital apprenticeships and for fostering digital champions. There should be a plan for greater awareness and scaling up of business-led initiatives, strategies for addressing the shortage of skills of particular strategic importance to the UK economy and how these capabilities should be introduced in workforce training, strategies for recruiting and retaining computer science teachers in schools, and a framework through which the private sector could more readily play a collaborative role with communities and local authorities in initiatives to raise digital skills in local SMEs.
10 June 2016