by Sarah Putt

After Signal: A proposal to address NZ’s ICT skills shortage

Jun 14, 2020
GovernmentTechnology Industry

The more independent Reserve Bank model is proposed as a model for the New Zealand education sector struggling to produce graduates with the necessary digital skills.

In its final months of operation, the Signal ICT Graduate School, a collaboration among five South Island universities and polytechnics, wants to prompt wider discussion on the problem that besets many CIOs and CFOs: the digital skills shortage.

Signal’s 48-page report examining trends in technology education concludes with the suggestion that an education policy unit be established that is modelled after the Reserve Bank of New Zealand (RBNZ)—that is, the government of the day sets the goals but the programme of work is carried out independently.

The case for the Reserve Bank model for ICT education

Signal director Stuart Charters, who is also co-author of the report, told CIO New Zealand that creating an education sector that provides young people with the necessary digital skills requires closer collaboration between industry and academia—and more flexibility in government regulation.

Charters cites the Productivity Commission’s report into tertiary education, which notes that regulatory settings make it hard for new models to emerge from existing government-funded providers. The solution may therefore lie outside the political realm. “To support the changes and investment required we need a stable environment where reliable long-term programmes can be built and optimised. Unfortunately, the uncertainty around future education policy driven by election cycles does not support this stability. Signal’s funding status is an excellent example of this,” he says.

“In much the same manner as the independence of the RBNZ allows for evidence based operational policy directed towards the most effective achievement of goals, our idea is a system where government directs the national priorities and desired outcomes, while programme execution is managed consistently based on evidence and international best practice—decoupled from the election cycle. We believe this would create the conditions to generate confidence, investment and innovation in the education sector and particularly for collaboration with business,” Charters said.

The RBNZ idea is arrived at in the Signal report after examining the factors hurting the tertiary education sector as a whole, and ICT training in particular.

The number of New Zealand students in tertiary education is relatively static, so universities and polytechnics make up the funding shortfall with fee-paying foreign students. This business model is constantly under threat by events such as the Canterbury earthquakes, changes in immigration policy, and now the coronavirus pandemic.

Meanwhile the demand for ICT-related skills continues to rise, so organisations fill vacancies by recruiting overseas, with 16 of the 57 codes listed on the New Zealand immigration long-term skills short lists being ICT-related.

Compounding matters is that digital skills are constantly evolving, with a Deloitte study showing the typical half-life of a technical skill is two years. It also notes that the current generation of students—millennials—are expected to have ten to 12 jobs by the age of 38. This is reflected in the view that 60 per cent of the millennials surveyed by Deloitte think seven months in a job means they’re “loyal”.

“These dual disruptions of technology churn and job churn are driving a new emphasis on individual, lifelong learning and the need for the modern employee to navigate a difficult and ongoing balancing act between the development of short-term, point skills addressing specific issues and deeper, more fundamental knowledge bases serving longer term career needs and interests,” the Signal report notes.

Addressing many of these needs currently are low-cost or no-cost programmes, such as the online knowledge base O’Reilly Media’s Safari, which provides unlimited access to more than 200 publishers and self-led training resources for US$39 a month. This is likely to further erode the business model for New Zealand tertiary providers.

What happens after the end of the Signal ICT graduate programme

Meanwhile, the Signal ICT Graduate School, which began in February 2017, will end in December 2020, having seen around 180 students through its programmes.

Charters says while Signal is closing, many of its initiatives will be continued by participating institutions:

  • Lincoln University is establishing a Master of Applied Computing programme
  • The University of Otago will continue its Diploma for Graduates (ICT).
  • The University of Canterbury will continue to deliver the courses that make up the Educate programme.
  • Otago Polytechnic will continue to offer the Master of Professional Practice.