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The state of education: Why UK universities are pushing for closer ties to the industry

Road to Rezzed: We speak to professors and lecturers about improving the current landscape for games-related degrees

This is the second in a series of features to support the Games Industry ahead of EGX Rezzed on March 30th. This piece is aimed at those attending or supporting the GamesIndustry.biz Careers Fair, the go-to destination for anyone considering a career in games.

Over the past decade or so, the number of higher education courses geared towards roles in games development has risen dramatically. Many of the UK's universities now produce graduates with qualifications in games design, art, programming, computing and more, but these institutes believe more must be done in order to meet the industry's need for new talent.

The ongoing democratisation of development, led by the likes of Unity and Unreal, has brought the barrier to entry lower than ever, so if universities are going to charge students thousands of pounds per year, they need to be teaching more than just how to download and install an engine.

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Professor David Duke, University of Leeds

"There's an urgent and growing skills crisis of graduates with the technically deep skills that various parts of the industry demand," says the University of Leeds' Professor David Duke. He serves as head of school for Leeds' school of computing, as well as programming manager for its high-performance graphics and games engineering courses.

"While there are plenty of high-level university courses that teach students how to develop games using off-the-shelf engines, there are very few in the UK and indeed the world that deliver anything like the level of technical skills that are needed to innovate with rendering at the hardware level, simulation, low-level performance tuning, and engine development techniques. These are the skills needed to push the next generation of entertainment especially at the dawn of the VR and AR industries with their increased graphical requirements."

Dr Carlton Reeve- head of school for media, design and technology at the University of Bradford - agrees, adding: "Prospective students are often looking for the latest software and hardware and it is the prospect of learning the tools that seems most appealing. If that's all you are looking for, save yourself 9,000 a year and turn on YouTube. If you simply want to know which buttons to press, the web will be your perfect teacher.

"There is nothing more frustrating for studios than to have to retrain recent graduates"

Dr Carlton Reeve, University of Bradford

"Teaching simply the tools and techniques of game design and development can produce technically proficient graduates who are stumped the next time there is a major software update or are asked to use a different package entirely. There is nothing more frustrating for studios than to have to retrain recent graduates."

Tanya Krzywinska, director of The Games Academy at Falmouth University, concurs that helping students develop relevant technical skills is crucial, but adds that universities should be "ensuring they are using industry-wide pipelines and processes" as well.

"Our approach at Falmouth is also to build IP generation and business/marketing skills as foundations of the development process," she says. "This seems best suited to the volatility in the industry. It's not sufficient these days to assume students will go into large and AAA studios. The industry can help by offering their time and expertise, as well opportunities for degree apprenticeships, internships and placements."

The industry faces another challenge. While universities can do all they can to arm students with not only the general skills they need but also technical and business ones as well, there's no guarantee they will follow the path to a games career when there are so many other industries vying for their talents - and often with the promise of higher pay.

"The games industry still hasn't got over its reputation for over-working employees, and doesn't offer salaries that compete with the best opportunities for great programmers outside of games"

Jake Habgood, Sheffield Hallam University

"There is very real competition for attracting talent," says Jake Habgood, senior lecturer for software and games development at Sheffield Hallam University and director of the on-campus games studio Steel Minions. "The industry still hasn't got over its reputation for over-working employees, and doesn't offer salaries that compete with the best opportunities for great programmers outside of games. The industry isn't necessarily always getting access to the cream of talent that it could be."

Duke agrees: "The computing at schools curriculum has been a great step in exciting students about programming and careers in computing, but games is now only one of many areas attracting the best students."

He goes on to observe that there is insufficient information passed onto secondary schools and colleges pointing aspiring developers to the relevant courses: "Having spoken to teachers, it is also clear that there is a lot of confusion about the different pathways into a career in games and they don't always feel equipped to give the correct advice. Advisors aren't familiar with the different kinds of role available, or career prospects, or the very different training requirements for someone working on graphical design to someone implementing advanced graphics using low-level parallel programming. There is work to do educating the people who will be supporting students' progression to higher education about these different career paths, and about where students can go for advice."

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Dr Carlton Reeve, University of Bradford

Reeve also notes that it's "surprising" how many teenage students aren't really aware they can study for a career in games. While he and his team spend a fair amount of time visiting schools around the North of England, and encourages more universities and students to do the same.

When it comes to passing on the skills that students will need, some universities find that recreating a studio-style environment is invaluable.

"Yes, that means access to cool technology and the latest approaches, but more importantly it means the opportunity for students to learn how to teach themselves how to pick up a new piece of technology and use it to deliver a product," says Habgood.

"If students can successfully contribute to a published product in this way then there is little doubt that they are employable and they have little trouble securing employment"

Jake Habgood, Sheffield Hallam University

"Our students working in the Steel Minions studio have the opportunity to work on a published PlayStation product using a SIE's C++-based PhyreEngine. If students can successfully contribute to a published product in this way then there is little doubt that they are employable and they have little trouble securing employment. The student developers behind PieceFall had no problems at all getting jobs after they became the first student team in the world to get a PS4 game published on PSN."

Many universities also employ former or current industry professionals as lecturers, and are keen to bring more experience in to improve the quality of their courses. This also ensures a closer relationship with the games industry.

"We employ many tutors who are still active in the industry," says Ken Lau, head of the school of art and design at Manchester's Futureworks Media School. "The benefits of having practising professionals who are teaching our students are manifold. We can be sure that our students are going into the industry with the right knowledge of the subject, technology and work flows."

Krzywinska adds: "Teaching staff tend to come from the industry and bring their networks with them. At Falmouth, we also involve industry through the means of an advisory panel and we developed our courses with strong input from people in the industry responsible for hiring."

Habgood adds that more opportunities for industry professionals to become academics would help across the board, but notes that gaining the credentials can prove problematic: "Many developers wrestle with PhD-level problems throughout their career, but it's not easy to make the transition to academia without the formal qualification."

While having industry experts as lecturers can improve the relationship between a university and the nearby games companies, several of the lecturers we spoke to believe the two need to work even closer together.

"Even though both sectors are making great advances within their respective fields, the main failing is effective communication between the two," says Lau. "This is the area that could do with some encouragement and this can be fostered with more collaborative research projects."

"Being willing to sacrifice an afternoon or two to chat to academics about the evolving needs of the industry and how they might be reflected in particular modules is desperately important"

Dr Carlton Reeve, University of Bradford

Duke agrees: "It is important for industry and higher education providers to speak with each other. The pace of innovation within the industry can be rapid, and dialogue is essential to shape course content and keep it relevant. Courses must strike a balance between fundamental skills and providing exposure to emerging ideas and new technologies like the Vulkan API.

"Where the relationship is even weaker is in tapping into universities' research strengths; collaboration between graphics research and industry is stronger in VFX, with more of a 'trickle down' of results into gaming. The UK scene isn't helped by the proportionally smaller number of groups doing internationally leading graphics, compared to the US, Canada, and Germany.

"Research is sometimes seen as too long-term to meet industry needs, but there are a range of schemes including Knowledge Transfer Partnerships. And where there are gaps, industry and academia need to make a stronger case to funding bodies such as Innovate UK and EPSRC: overseas firms are doing a better job of collaborative research, and that will give them a competitive advantage in the future."

Universities are also calling for more studios to offer work placements and internships. Not only will these help students experience a professional environment, they will also improve their employability and, Reeve argues, the quality of the courses they study.

"Having students working in games companies brings real benefits not only to the students concerned but to their host institutions, as they bring back real-world experience," he says. "It raises the game not only of those individuals but the teams that they work with, and the academics who teach them."

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Jake Habgood, Sheffield Hallam University

Habgood adds: "More placement opportunities for students would be very welcome. It's amazing how much students grow during industry placements, but often they get placements outside of the games industry and end up working outside of games because their employers really want to hang on to them. Many a good student has passed the games industry by because other companies were more eager to court them."

Looking ahead, the key to improving the quality of games education in the UK - and arguably the world over - rests with industry rather than academia. The more developers and other experts can get involved, the better universities will understand their needs and what it required to meet them. Of course, as Lau observes, academics recognise that studios and independent developers are "notoriously busy".

"We regularly ask for external speakers to come in and talk with our students," he says. "Studios can look at this as an opportunity to find stellar students and to help steer the future generation whilst independent developers can see it as speaking practise for conferences.

"In terms of helping to shape courses, it is always useful if studios are able to provide some of their senior team members to visit universities to give pass comment and give advice on taught practises, technology and work flows.

"Giving talks to students pre-university at games events such as EGX that are aimed at consumers would be a great opportunity to engage with young people in the careers and education areas. Creative Assembly already do this at EGX and based on previous EGX conventions, they are very busy at these events."

Reeve concludes: "Being willing to sacrifice an afternoon or two in a year to chat to academics about the evolving needs of the industry and how they might be reflected in particular modules is desperately important."

Throughout EGX Rezzed, GamesIndustry.biz will run its bi-annual Careers Fair, where studios can meet aspiring developers and other future talent. For more details and information on how to get involved, contact James.Batchelor@gamesindustry.biz.

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