In a country already fraught with a lack of adequate IT skills, it is alarming to see that interest in science and maths at school level seem to be at an all time low, says Richard Firth, Chairman and CEO of MIP Holdings. From 2009 to 2013, maths uptake dropped 21% and science fell by as much as 20% on a national level.
"Why, in a country that so desperately needs more students specialising in these fields, are we continually seeing a decline? I believe there are many reasons, all of which need to be addressed urgently. It should be noted, however, that not a single institution is to blame. Rather, there are several role players - including schools, government, parents, and career counsellors who need to make changes that will enable and empower the future generation to excel in computer science-related fields," Firth says.
At the basic level, many students do not qualify to study computer science, information systems, software engineering, electrical engineering or information technology because these necessitate good matric results in maths, science and English. However, the below-average condition of these subjects in schools deters many learners from choosing ICT-related fields.
In 2013, the World Economic Forum's (WEF) 5th Financial Development Report ranked South Africa last on the quality of maths and science education out of 62 countries surveyed. WEF's annual Global Competitiveness Report 2013, ranked South Africa 146 out of 148 for the (poor) quality of its educational system.
"There is a lack of qualified technical educators in the South African school system, which makes exceeding in the subjects difficult, even if the interest is there," Firth says. "It is also important to remember that science especially can be an expensive subject from a school's point of view - they need to make significant financial investment in setting up labs and equipment, and limited budgets often means science cannot be taught to its full potential."
He adds that while maths and science are essential, another vital subject is English because of the importance of language in programming. "All programming languages are English based, and a sound understanding of English grammar is especially important – just a missing fullstop changes the nature of what a program is intended to do. In fact, deciphering a Shakespearean sonnet is very similar to reading someone's program and amending it, While the need to develop other languages at school level is self-evident, adding another language to an already packed school curriculum reduces the time students can focus on English. Without better English skills, the shortage of programming skills will just continue."
Furthermore, he points out that debating is a good activity for students to engage in to learn how to effectively build a logical argument, and that that many students perceive maths and science to be more difficult than other subjects, and often do not understand what kinds of careers they are giving up by not taking these subjects.
"This can be a result of poor career counselling. Parents and teachers, especially those in disadvantaged communities and rural areas, have very little knowledge about careers in ICT. There may well be students with the required competency to excel in an ICT career, but they may never be presented with the choice or encouraged to follow an ICT career path."
Further challenges include a lack of support from families as ICT-related career choices tend to be viewed as "family-unfriendly" due to the perception that they require long working hours.
Finally, a lack of viable role-models, especially for young girls, is also a significant deterrent for students, Firth points out.
"Basically, what it comes down to is education. Parents and teachers are crucial to fostering interest in students for these neglected subjects, and they need to be educated about the inherent value of maths and science so that they can encourage their children and learners. The industry can also get involved by implementing programmes to foster love for ICT-related subjects. There are several successful programmes that have already been implemented internationally which are helping increase interest in this way - especially targeting young girls."
Government can assist by partnering with the industry to develop realistic curriculums so that what is taught in schools and universities is what is actually required in terms of IT skills "in the real world".
"Government also needs to ensure better management in schools, better qualified teachers, exposure to inspirational role-models, improved career guidance, and more generous budgets for science equipment," Firth adds. "If this issue is not treated as urgent, South Africa will be forced to outsource ICT-related services to international companies in order to fulfil local demands. The local skills shortage will continue to be a problem for this country and will inevitably negatively affect the economy."