In A speech last year, Google chairman Eric Schmidt criticised the UK for falling behind on technology education. But now another computing giant is planning to make a contribution with its own IT programme.
Hewlett-Packard (HP) hopes to train 20,000 students over the next four years on a custom vocational course, working with universities, colleges and schools. Four universities will provide the first students next month.
HP has also agreed to work with the United Learning Trust academy sponsor, and will run apprenticeships with Pearson in Practice. Some courses, such as the apprenticeships, would be government funded, while degree courses would be paid for through loans as usual, or by employer sponsors.
Last year, Mr Schmidt told a media conference that the UK was lagging behind on technology education. "If I may be so impolite, your track record isn't great," he said. "The UK is home of so many media-related inventions. You invented photography. You invented TV. You invented computers in both concept and practice. It's not widely known, but the world's first office computer was built in 1951 by Lyons' chain of tea shops. Yet today, none of the world's leading exponents in these fields are from the UK."
With the government hanging on Google's every word - Conservative ministers have met the search company's bosses 23 times since the 2010 general election - HP found the UK a particularly receptive place for its ideas, and decided to pilot what will become a global programme here.
"In the UK there are many social and political factors that make it a great place for us to pilot this," said Brian Beneda, manager of HP academic programmes. He cited the government's enthusiasm for vocational education as one factor.
The course will offer four modules in mobile devices, networks, data storage and "cloud" services (providing users' data and software over a network) that can be built into existing IT and computer science courses. At the same time, students will gain work experience, either by being employed on an apprenticeship, or through internships or contract work on projects.
"What we are seeing is that the skill set that is out there is not great for where the market is going," Mr Beneda said. "There are a number of IT jobs that are open and a number of IT professionals who are unemployed. How can you have a bunch of unemployed people and at the same time have job vacancies? It's because the skill set is lacking."
The aim is to provide students with an understanding of how IT fits into the business context: what an employer needs and how technology can improve the bottom line. They also need end-to-end experience in creating IT systems. "It's not good enough just to code; it's now a requirement to teach a broad-based skill set," Mr Beneda said.
Hands-on experience has also been judged to be lacking. "That's the biggest knock on academia - they provide great learning but don't provide a practical skill set, so it takes employers six months to a year of on- the-job training to make them productive," Mr Beneda added.
A report by e-Skills UK, the sector skills council for IT, said Britain could achieve a pound;50 billion productivity gain if technology was used properly, particularly by smaller companies.
Mr Beneda said the need for IT skills was almost universal, with even industries such as fashion design relying on computing.
While HP claims some history of philanthropic work in education, it also expects that better skills in the workforce will improve its performance as a company. "If we can seed the marketplace with the skills to help our customers drive their business forward, it improves their partnership with HP," Mr Beneda said.
IT IS BIG BUSINESS
144,000 - Number of workplaces in the UK's IT and telecoms industry.
9% - Their contribution to the UK economy (pound;81 billion).
8.5% - US multinationals are on average 8.5 per cent more productive than UK firms, mostly because of better use of IT.
pound;50bn - Productivity gain that could be generated by better use of IT.
Source: e-Skills UK, Technology Insights 2011.