IT grads: Time to raise the bar

  • Computer Science should be a 4yr program
  • While industry skills are important, fundamentals are core

IT grads: Time to raise the barMARK down May, 2016 on your calendars. That is when the pioneer batch of Universiti Sains Malaysia (USM) Computer Science graduates come out after having gone through a four-year program instead of the typical three.
This more rigorously structured program is not future-looking, it is merely going back to the past when Computer Science used to be a four-year program in all our public universities. It was changed in the late 1990s under the mistaken belief that cutting one year off university education was the answer to the industry’s need for talent.
Computer Science faculties in public universities suffered because of this. Many core modules to such as mathematics were cut to bring the program down to three years.
It is no coincidence that the degradation in quality of IT grads escalated after this change in curriculum.
But there were other structural challenges. The unique five choices aspiring university students have to list as their preference for study saw many getting assigned degree programs they were not keen on -- a sure recipe for disaster.

In fact, Prof Rosni Abdullah, Dean of the School of Computer Sciences at USM, cites this as one of the main reasons why many Computer Science graduates come out with a weak foundation. It is hard to put in the hard work to excel at a program if one’s heart is not in it.

USM, based in the island of Penang in northern Malaysia in 1969, was the second university to be established in the country.
This year’s incoming undergraduate class has 147 students, the highest in the past three years, with 62 students coming in at the Masters level. It was 86 and 92 respectively in 2010; and 100 and 51 in 2009.
Prof Rosni spoke to Digital News Asia on what USM is doing to produce top quality graduates, and also tackles the question posed on whether our university lecturers are good enough.
DNA: Why does it seem like we have not made any progress in tackling the talent shortage and talent quality issue in IT?
Prof Rosni: I actually believe it's more of a mismatch than a shortage. Public and private institutions still produce Computer Science and IT graduates, but many may not meet the job requirements.
Furthermore, public universities which have become research-intensive universities (UM, USM, UPM, UKM and UTM) have reduced their undergraduate intake.
In USM specifically, our number of graduates this year is the lowest as we transit from a three-year degree program to a four-year degree program.

Personally, I believe that as long as the university produces ICT graduates equipped with the proper knowledge and skills in software development, the mismatch can be addressed.

DNA: I understand that in private, academics are frustrated with the pressure on them to produce 'industry-ready' graduates. Even former Intel CEO Craig Barret once told me in Penang that the job of universities in producing world- class engineers means that students must come out with a strong understanding of the fundamentals of their major, be it electrical, mechanical or mechatronic. “We can then quickly train them for our specific needs.”

How do you strike a balance between the pressure from industry and even policy-makers versus how your department would ideally like to mold the students?
IT grads: Time to raise the barProf Rosni (pic): I recall attending industry-academia meetings where the issue of producing "industry ready" graduates had been raised. Yes, it's frustrating, but eventually after several dialogue sessions we came to understand each other and have initiated various structured programs where both the industry and academia work together towards making the graduates "industry ready."
As a university, we provide education to our graduates with which they can use to adapt and survive in the workplace, especially in Computer Science/ IT where the change in technology is very rapid. You need a strong foundation in the core fundamentals in order to cope with the changes.
At the School of Computer Sciences USM, we have always believed in striking a balance between the fundamentals and skills, of course with greater emphasis on the fundamentals. The fundamentals will ensure the graduates survive the fast changing IT world.
Our curriculum has been designed to include a practical, skill-based component from Year 1 through Year 4. There is a six-month industrial training in Year 3 and a final year project in Year 4.
We have always maintained good links with industry since the formation of the School and each time we have a curriculum review we engage the industry as a major stakeholder to provide comments and feedback. This industry link has now been formalised via the formation of our Industry and Community Advisory Panel (ICAP).
We also equip our students with the necessary soft skills required in the workplace. We don't offer special courses but it's achieved by having students work in teams, deliver presentations and participate in competitions.

DNA: I have often heard that foreign-trained IT grads are technically and conceptually better than locally-trained grads. Two lady CEOs also shared the same opinion with me in the last few months. A former CIO of a large Malaysian public-listed company, who now works in Singapore, says the IT grads there are much stronger technically than Malaysians trained from our universities.

Why is there still this gap? Are our local lecturers and professors just not good enough?
Prof Rosni: This is a tough one. Personally I will not make that generalization. I have seen some good locally-trained IT grads as well as good overseas-trained grads. Generally speaking, the foreign-trained grads are the cream who were selected to study abroad (not just in Computer Science/ IT).
For those who studied abroad on their own expenses, they have their own goals and determination. Those who remain to study locally go through a central selection process where, sometimes, they may end up in a study program that they are not interested in.
Ever since I started lecturing at USM in 1987, I have encountered many students who admitted that they wanted to study something else but were offered Computer Science/ IT instead. Some accepted it positively but some did not.
In 2009 (the first year of USM becoming an APEX university), we were allowed by the Ministry of Higher Education to make our own selection of undergraduate students. So, those who entered the School of Computer Science at USM from 2009 onwards actually chose to study ICT.
However, it's still too early to gauge the outcome as they have not yet graduated.

[APEX is the Malaysian Government's Accelerated Programme for Excellence, which provides additonal assistance to universities that have been identified as having the potential to be world-class universities].

DNA: Is it true that a few years back, some public universities actually wanted to stop offering IT-related progams as the demand was very low? Why do students still have a low perception of IT as a profession?
Prof Rosni: The low demand that happened a few years back was a global phenomenon. This is already changing. We are already seeing an increase in enrolment. Besides, MDeC [the Multimedia Development Corporation, which oversees the MSC Malaysia initiative], in collaboration with some ICT faculties in Malaysia, has been doing a lot of promotion and awareness programs to schools throughout Malaysia.
DNA: If you were to map out which are the key sectors within IT that will need a strong talent pool in five years’ time, what would they be and how is your curriculum ready for that?
Prof Rosni: I believe it would be software development, particularly for the mobile platform and the emerging high performance computing, virtualization, business intelligence, security … to name a few. Technology changes very fast, too fast for our curriculum to accommodate everything.
I would like to emphasize that we will always focus on the core fundamentals and complement these with emerging technologies and skills. One way is by embedding in our courses invited talks by industry players (we're lucky that we have many software-related industries nearby USM) who speak on emerging and industry-relevant technologies related to the course topic.
In our four-year curriculum, we start exposing the students to various ICT industries and technologies in their first year, so as to allow them to understand early in their studies how the theory and fundamentals that we teach is applied to the real world.
We also organise workshops for specific skills that we feel are necessary.
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