Studies in computer science: Degree and secondary school background correlate

A current graduate analysis reveals that IT training in Austria is lagging behind economic needs. It’s high time we revolutionise the education system.

Studies in computer science: the "status quo"

Despite the fact that our universities are bursting at the seams, things don’t look good when it comes to the next generation of computer science graduates in Austria. The Graz-based statistician Harald Lothaller investigated who was graduating from computer science departments at the Graz University of Technology, TU Wien, Johannes Kepler University Linz and the University of Vienna. He discovered a fairly homogenous picture: today’s students of computer science are usually male, Austrian citizens, around 23 years old at the start of their studies and have completed their secondary education at technical colleges (HTL) or sometimes an academic secondary school emphasising mathematics and science (Realgymnasium). They usually prefer to remain in their home state for university. As the semesters go by, this already homogenous group tends to become more and more alike, or rather, those who are different tend to drop out.

To change this trend, education and training in information technology needs to become more flexible. The formula for success involves combining the study of informatics with other subjects, such as economics, technology and the natural sciences. In principle, information technology needs to become the foundation of every degree course, because no profession will survive in the digital future without a basic knowledge of informatics.

We should question why we are limiting enrolment in degree courses at Austrian universities when incoming student numbers on certain courses are so low. Entrance exams stop many interested future students from being able to demonstrate their IT talent. And only a portion of those who study information technology actually end up finishing. This is partly because they are lured away by employers before completing their degree, but also because the student-staff ratio at Austrian universities is poor.

Improved cooperation between schools and universities

Austrian degree courses in computer science have high drop-out rates – under current conditions, many students end up never finishing their degree. And there is a systematic correlation between dropping out and secondary school background. In my opinion, cooperation between schools and universities needs to be improved. One possible solution would be a preparatory phase between secondary school and a degree course in computer science similar to the Austrian HAK colleges for higher vocational education. This would bring pupils from the academic secondary schools (AHS) up to the level of technical college (HTL) graduates, decreasing the likelihood that students get frustrated and throw in the towel.

Ideas such as this may seem rather far-fetched at first. But if we want to lead Austria into the digital future, we need to think long and hard as well as “outside the box” – economic reality has already rendered our cumbersome educational system obsolete.