Whither Computer Science education in Sri Lanka?

I teach for the first year undergraduates of the Science Faculty, University of Colombo, a course called Introduction to Computing. In the lectures I emphasize that I am there not to teach Information Technology per se, but Computer Science. In that, I mean, IT is the all encompassing practical manifestation of the Computing discipline whereas Computer Science is the hard science that underlies IT. One may see pure mathematics and applied mathematics in the same light. I have deliberately designed the course contents to cover areas such as binary arithmetic, algorithms, logic and computational models in a simplified manner to suit freshers. None of the things I teach have a direct commercial value, unlike Java programming or Software Engineering, and they need not, students being first year undergraduates. Information Technology I would say, could be learnt at any private institution and that, one does not have to come particularly to the university to learn it. IT is a vocational subject and the duty of the university is to go far beyond what a vocational training institute or a conventional tertiary education institute would do in molding students’ abilities. Of course the students have to find jobs and the oft quoted statement by industry that the CS/IT students are ‘not aware’ of ‘immediately applicable’ technologies comes to mind. However the universities should not compromise their stand satisfying a rather short sighted view of the industry, which may be motivated by the need to find ‘cheap’ labour to develop software for the foreign market. Looking at India and even listening to comments from some of the senior software professionals in the local industry, we observe that as a particular industry reaches its peak, they would rather prefer graduates with analytical and theoretical skills over just programmers. With the typical shortsightedness we have missed this point and are being swayed by student and industry opinion in abandoning the scientific basis of Computing to IT. Two observations confirm this: most students opt for the three year ‘industry’ oriented degree and if they do follow the four year degree, the fourth year subjects except the individual project being made optional, they abandon the important theoretically biased subjects. These four year degree holders do not have a solid grasp of the core theoretical concepts in Computer Science which they need if they are to apply for postgraduate studies in USA for example. We need to address this degenerating trend by several means. First, we should be selective in our intake. Second, from the first year onwards the mathematical content of the course should be increased. Many of our alumni say that they are thankful for the first two years solid grounding they got, in terms of mathematics, for their later research careers. Third, the core computing science units of the final year should be made compulsory. Fourth, the selection to study the final two years must be made competitive. Universities are meant to be learning environments in a research setting, however much the modern view of learner centric, vocational, semester based, credit based, industry targeted proponents may say. Our future in sustaining a critical examining culture is at stake, if we do not view the emerging situation carefully. We are part of the poorer third world, working under the dictates of the International lending organizations, creating havoc in the secondary education system, for example cutting down the Advanced Level subjects from four to three, thereby diluting the mathematical knowledge of the students. The universities have a sacred duty to sustain the analytical and theoretical culture which is part of Asia’s heritage as shown by India. Whatever the fluctuations and ups and downs of the commercialized world, we would then have laid a solid foundation for our younger generation of graduates for them to adapt and contribute to cutting edge research.