Why don't tech savvy students study IT?

With last week's release of A-Level results followed by today's GCSE results, , many pundits have been asking why so few students are taking courses in computing and ICT - especially given this is the most supposedly tech-savvy generation yet.

Despite being fluent with computers, mobiles and other tech devices, why aren't students - and girls in particular - taking up studies in technology? It's a key question, as a continuing skills shortage in the sector is set to worsen without more recruits.

Rob Bamforth, an analyst for research firm Quocirca, suggested today's students aren't really as tech-aware as many believe. "I don't think they are tech savvy," said Bamforth. "They're not aware of technology, it's so regular and normal to use it they don't consider it."

This is partially driven by how technology has become a consumer good and also how inaccessible it is, he said. Two decades ago, a computer was a complicated device which required some knowledge to run. Now, technology has advanced enough that training is no longer required. So while younger people use technology, they no longer need to know how it works.

Bamforth notes that computing and ICT aren't the only subjects suffering low numbers of students. "It does seem there are more complex subjects with definitely right and wrong answers and that's more of a challenge for some people," he said. "Everybody struggles to see the way scientific subjects and maths as well are useful in the real world."

Students also lack role models and inspiration, Bamforth suggested. "I'm sure there are some business and industry figures who could be made more accessible and become an inspiration for new generations," he said. Previously, figures like Bill Gates - a geek becoming successful - offered someone for students to look to for inspiration. "Anyone could see elements of themselves in people who made it," said Bamforth.

Now, with smaller success stories being swallowed up by larger corporations, the individuals are harder to see. "These days, IT organisations are far more faceless," said Bamforth. "They're far more like regular businesses, so it's harder to see inspiration... and youngsters are not inspired by the business world."

Jeff Brook, chair of the Recruitment and Employment Confederation's IT and Comms sector group, agreed. He noted that the IT sector doesn't quite have the energy it once did. "When I was growing up, it was the place to be," Brook said. "It's got into a bit of a steady state... it doesn't have the mystique, but it's still an engaging career."

Indeed, seeing the cool side of IT is a marketing problem, said Mike Rodd, a director at the British Computer Society (BCS). "There's a perception problem with parents, teachers and school kids themselves about the IT industry," said Rodd. "It's seen as a poor career choice, contrary to employment rates." He cited outsourcing overseas, the dot-com bust and the idea that techies are stuck in the basement toiling in front of green screens as common negative perceptions of the industry. He said students should consider the staff shortages, high salary levels and prestige of the job before they pass it over.

He did note that just because a student doesn't take an A-Level in computing, doesn't mean they are precluded from a career in IT. "If you look at increasing numbers of kids taking maths, it means a lot of very good students are not opting to take ICT or computing at school," Rodd said - but maths is a perfect subject as a step toward a career with technology.

"There's tremendous evidence of shortages down the pipeline, and we have got to do something about it," said Rodd.

Negative perceptions are damaging to the number of girls taking computing courses, too, said Jeanette McMurdo, who organises women's IT courses for Bradford College and works for the UK Resource Centre for women in the technology sector. While 1.4 per cent of male students taking A-Levels opted for the computing course, there was even fewer female students - just 0.1 per cent. Over 5,000 male students took the computing A-Level this year, while just 575 female students did. "There's still a perception it's a male thing," said McMurdo. "There isn't anything inherent stopping girls doing it, it's just a cultural thing."

One way of battling this could be women-only classes, she said. "That might be an answer... look at how many girls do it at a single sex school, which produce engineers in greater numbers than mixed schools," she noted.