Industry push to attract students
'It became quite clear year 11 and 12 is too late.' Simon Kaplan, NICTA
Australia's information and communications technology graduate numbers have halved in the past decade. Now Australia's research agency NICTA hopes to reverse the decline with the national rollout of an initiative that has helped boost enrolments by 50 per cent in Queensland.
Launched in 2007 by Simon Kaplan, former dean of science and technology at Queensland University of Technology, the program known as GroupX uses extracurricular projects and workshops to spark interest in ICT careers among the under-15s.
Backed by a consortium of government agencies, universities, industry associations and vendors, GroupX could take credit for Queensland enrolment numbers that have defied the gloomy national trend, said Mr Kaplan, who now runs NICTA's Queensland lab.
Offers for ICT tertiary courses in the state rose from 1171 in 2007 to 2000 in 2011; a trend the program's national manager Karsten Schulz hopes will be replicated Australia-wide within five years.
The number of students graduating from ICT courses nationally dropped from 9093 in 2003 to 4547 in 2012. Only 54.6 per cent of domestic entrants complete their courses.
Mr Kaplan said targeting students in years 5 to 10 yielded better results than trying to influence the tertiary choices of students in years 11 and 12, whose career aspirations were formed.
"It became quite clear early on that year 11 and 12 is too late," he said. "We need to be patient and prepared for really long latency. Education is a long-term business. We have to take a long-term view."
While GroupX's remit was about "increasing the size of the cake", Mr Kaplan said he was also working with institutions to make their curriculums more modern and engaging, a move he hopes will reduce dropout rates.
Academics and industry bodies say Australia will face a worsening technology skills shortage unless more young people are funnelled into the profession.
In July, Australia Workforce and Productivity Agency CEO Robin Shreeve warned that more foreign workers would be needed to make up the shortfall if dwindling tertiary enrolments were not tackled.
Some believe employers exaggerate the skills shortages to justify importing foreign staff who will work for lower wages than locals.
Australian Computer Society Foundation executive director John Ridge said low enrolment numbers reflected the lack of quality career advice available to students, rather than lack of interest in ICT careers.
The head of policy at the Australian Computer Society, Adam Redman, said the initiative would help deal with the country's "appalling lack of ICT skills".
"Digital literacy - how to use a laptop - is not the same as digital capability - understanding how it works - and through initiatives like GroupX we can help address critical brakes and risk to our digital economy," Mr Redman said.
GroupX will receive $6.5 million over four years from the Department of Communications and expects cash and in-kind assistance from major sponsors, including Commonwealth Bank, Optus and CSIRO.