"Something is throttling the industry's new blood"

David Braben

By David Braben

April 28th 2010 at 11:32AM

Frontier Developments founder weighs in on the issue of declining industry entrants

Seeing Gordon Brown boasting about the games industry as ‘leading the way in Europe’ is rich. Since 2001 we have seen educational standards decline, inward investment discouraged, and other countries steal a march on us with tax breaks. So much for “education, education, education”; so much for “Digital Britain”. They have let our industry down.

There has been plenty of talking about issues for our industry with inward investment, the rise of tax breaks in competing jurisdictions and so arguments for ‘levelling the playing field’ in the UK, so I won’t go over those here but in comparison there has been little discussion about the parlous state of education, and how it affects our industry with the lack of educated candidates.

Student numbers applying to study key “STEM” subjects (science, technology, engineering and maths) are declining dramatically in the UK, particularly in computer science. We need these skills as a country, not just for the games industry.

For example, since 2001 the number of applicants to computer science courses at university in the UK has halved (fallen by 52 per cent) – and this is over a period when university attendance has increased by 24 per cent. Meanwhile the number of employed IT professionals in the UK (not just games) has continued to increase over the same period. This is a very serious problem for computer science courses, including here at Cambridge. Some have chosen to drop standards to get more people on to their courses and avoid bankruptcy. Something is very wrong, and it is throttling the new programming blood coming into our industry.

There are a number of possible reasons. Government has incentivised the university sector to get ‘bums on seats’ – and it really doesn’t matter to them how clever or suited to the course that ‘bum’ is. There is no minimum quality standard, but the university is penalised financially if the student fails the course. This has caused the rise of the ‘soft’ course; courses which are designed to be very easy, mostly variants on media studies, many of which have been based around games.

Having said that, I don’t think that is the main reason for the stark decline, as you can see for yourself in the shocking graph on the [right], courtesy of the CPHC and eskills. Anecdotally, asking students which subject was the most boring for them in school, almost without exception they say ‘ICT’ (information and communication technology). Put cruelly, ICT is the ability to find the power switch on a computer, and use Microsoft Word and Excel at a basic level. We know something has destroyed interest in computer science, and ICT is the most likely candidate, especially given the timing of the drop in applicants.

ICT is a direct result of a political edict, via the National Curriculum. It was clearly well intentioned, trying to give all children a basic knowledge of IT, but as with many ill-considered political initiatives, it seems to have had this somewhat inevitable consequence, especially since the majority of the children on many such courses may be more knowledgeable then their teacher (since any available teacher can and does teach ICT).

Much as the UK has reaped the substantial benefits of the BBC Micro generation in the early 80s (like me), the UK will reap this negative whirlwind in future years. Though clearly damage has been done, our industry can still be a force for change for the better.

We are one of the few UK-based industries that can clearly motivate young people to engage with education. I have given talks at universities, even marked coursework (not for the faint hearted), and I know many others do so too, like Blitz and SCEE. But this is not what I am talking about. Games can be used in class to engage children with more advanced concepts, but this needs changes to the National Curriculum – for example to allow the brighter kids to swap ICT for computer science at GCSE level and earlier.

The current government has been in a state of paralysis for a long time. Government ministers have heard the arguments for tax breaks and ignored them. They have heard those for encouraging inward investment and ignored them. They have heard the arguments detailed here on education, and yes, ignored them. There are a few clarion voices within government who do care (Tom Watson, for example), but many of the key people are too busy clinging on to power and expense accounts, while hoping we will forget about the mess they have created.

I have high hopes for the opposition (with people like Ed Vaizey, Don Foster and Nigel Evans), and for the new blood (of all colours) coming in at the next election. There is even talk of election promises. Let’s hope it will make a difference. As I think Al Capone said “Vote early, vote often!”