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Post-Brexit skills gap concerns lead agenda at TIGA Education Summit

Universities from around the UK are concerned leaving the EU will cut off much-needed skills supply

Fears that leaving the European Union could sever the UK's access to highly skilled students, graduates and professional was a major talking point at last night's TIGA Education Summit.

The trade body invited representatives from universities around the nation, as well as studios such as Jagex and Climax, to Parliament in order to discuss the changing needs of UK higher education when training up new talent for the games industry. CEO Dr Richard Wilson opened the summit by addressing the biggest challenges both industry and academia face, starting with an ongoing skills shortage.

"This is partly because the games industry is growing," he acknowledged. "Our headcount in the UK is growing by about 7% per annum so there's pressure in terms of recruiting really high-skilled people. The advent of Brexit could make this problem even more challenging.

"At the moment, we recruit about 15% of the workforce from the European Union. If that supply was cut off from higher education and the games industry, clearly that could create challenges.

"The more that the government can do in a post-Brexit world to ensure a flexible and efficient migration policy governing the European Union will obviously be to our advantage. The UK games industry and higher education don't need hundreds of thousands of high-skilled people from the European Union, but we do need hundreds and, certainly in the case of higher education, the high hundreds."

There was a lot of skepticism about whether the government could completely cut off the flow of talent from the EU, with Climax Studios' Stuart Godfrey observing: "How could you possibly put that into practice?" and adding that 42 out of the developer's 120 staff originate from the continent. Simon Miles of Jagex stressed that while the studio is still interested in hiring from overseas, the number of applications from Europe has dropped.

Another concern was the financial impact. According to a new TIGA report launching today - Making The UK A World Leader In Games Education - UK universities currently receive £836m in EU research funding, something that has become highly beneficial to those offering games courses.

"The loss of EU funding and how that affects skills and training worries me," said Sheffield Hallam University's James Habgood. "My concern is that if EU funding disappears and we go back to UK research councils, I feel they tend to favour traditional subjects and traditional universities rather than game-based research. That has a knock-on effect in terms of what skills we can provide to students and by extension the industry."

Hope Caton from London's Kingston University agreed, adding that there is a lingering attitude on research councils about the frivolity of video games. Caton has worked with her students to develop VR games designed to encourage empathy for people with disabilities, exploring their conditions - a type of project research councils are unlikely to be aware of.

"The UK games industry and higher education don't need hundreds of thousands of high-skilled people from the European Union, but we do need hundreds and, certainly in the case of higher education, the high hundreds."

Richard Wilson, TIGA

"We need to shift that attitude and expand people's vision that games can be used for something other than killing people," she said. "They should know there is science behind games. If we can change that mindset we can get more from research funding because the people who sit on those councils will have an appreciation that games can be used to improve society, not just provide dubious entertainment for your teenage son."

Kingston University takes in a high number of foreign students, especially on the Masters degree level, according to Caton. If the immigration process between the UK and EU becomes more problematic, there are still issues with other territories that will hinder universities' ability to bring in the most promising and deserving students.

"There are a lot of rumours going around, including that apparently the Home Office now insists anyone outside the EU has to have all your tuition and maintenance in your bank account for 28 days if you're coming here for a Masters degree," she says. "That's a lot of money, and means people won't be able to afford to come. Is there any appreciation from the Home Office as to how all this will decimate our sector, and not just games?"

Another hot topic was the challenge of increasing diversity amongst the games workforce and the graduates that supply it. One attendee observed that the industry has found itself in an absurd situation where 50 per cent of people playing games are women, but only 15 per cent of developers are female. While more girls are becoming interested in studying games design and related courses at universities, the consensus was that this issue needs to be addressed at a much younger age.

"About 20 per cent of the people on our courses are women," said Darrenlloyd Gent. "To some people, that sounds good - I don't think it sounds good at all.

"The problem goes all the way back to school. When kids decide what they're going to do, by the time they're picking their GCSEs, girls are avoiding the core subjects. Somehow they're being put off, and it's a massive problem."

Mark Eyles from the University of Portsmouth and educational advisor to TIGA observed that it's a complex problem, but believes "[the industry's] outreach to kids is great, and getting them interested before they're 10 is vital".

"I reach out to a lot of teenage girls," said Caton. "I get them to come into Kingston to test our games and they're always completely surprised at how great games are. The problem is by the time a girl is perhaps 14 or 15, even if she likes games and maybe she likes coding and tech, she doesn't have the physics or maths.

"Perhaps she was intimidated by math, because we see programming as code and boys are the ones who code. But actually programming is a language, it's just learning a language and girls are really good at that. If we call it a language rather than code, it might be more appealing. Or, when a girl decides she'd like to get into games, is there a way that we can catch her up, so she can get the maths and the physics to apply for a course?"

"We need to shift that attitude and expand people's vision that games can be used for something other than killing people. If we can change that mindset we can get more from research funding"

Hope Caton, Kingston University

The ongoing differences between what skills the industry wants and what academia provides was also discussed. While the relationship between the two sectors is strong in particular hubs around the UK, several universities said there is still room for improvement.

Gent suggested that some studios need to be more flexible on what they demand from graduates: "It seems to vary from organisation to organisation. King is a good example - once a student has graduated with a first-class degree, they recognise that student has the ability to transfer skills and adapt. Other companies seem to have very explicit view on what we should be teaching students, demanding very specific things that only they want and have only wanted for the last two years. It would be good to be able to address that so that companies realise that students with a first-class, or even a 2.1, can adapt and invest time in those graduates in order to get them acclimatised to their environment.

"We don't just want to create drones. We want to create students who can think - that, to me, is the whole point of higher education. We can only fit a finite amount of employability, technical environment and working skills into three years."

Jagex's Simon Miles countered: "It's a big investment for a games company to take a risk with a graduate on that salary, particularly when you're a company that is only a 60-person team under tight deadlines. They will want people that can do what they already do, trained to use the same system.

"We're more flexible because we have the capacity to do that, we look for cognitive diversity. I don't care what degree a student has - out of the 24 students we have taken on this year a good proportion don't have a games-related degree. We've got guys with biomedical science and all sorts of things, and we're always keen to see graduates with computer science or physics degrees. We're after that spark, that thinking that means they'll fit in with our organisation. But there are not many studios that have that attitude."

Climax's Stuart Godfrey added that his studio is particularly pressed for time with some of its deadlines: "Our projects might be just six months long, so if you're trying to bring someone new in, it's almost impossible to have the bandwidth train them up. We just don't have that luxury, unfortunately."

During his opening address, Wilson observed that the changing landscape of the industry means different skills are needs in order to prepare graduates for life at smaller studios or as entrepreneurs.

"The games industry is changing in terms of the skills that are needed," he said. "Over the last few years, we've seen more developers shift away from relying on traditional publishers to a situation where we now have 69% of studios in the UK actually self-publishing their games. That puts a premium on better commercial, management and business skills.

"The more universities can do in providing business and commercial skills, the better. Of course that can't be a huge part of a particular course, but it can be a module or a smaller course in its own right."

"We don't just want to create drones. We want to create students who can think - that, to me, is the whole point of higher education."

Darrenlloyd Gent, University of Greenwich

Finally, a regular topic for discussion was the technical needs of universities as they attempt to equip their students with the same systems being used in the industry. The University of Greenwich's Darrenlloyd Gent observed that he struggles to explain to his institute that games courses require more flexible technology than the "bog-standard" systems the rest of the courses use, and that an industry report on minimum requirements could help him argue his case.

"Windows 7 is not fit for games courses," he said. "If you're working with Android Studio, the amount of admin rights you have issues with trying to get things working properly... large organisations need to understand we need to be more flexible, not working on bog-standard systems."

Eyles responded that TIGA is currently exploring the possibility of creating benchmark statements to help guide universities as to what they should be providing and investing in, with London South Bank University's Siobhán Thomas adding that this needs to extend beyond current requirements.

"VR has thrown a bit of a kink in the works, because in order to use VR headsets, you have to have certain graphics cards," she said. "Even when you tell the IT departments that you need them, there's other people who might not sign it off and think you can just manage with a standard graphics card. If you're going to publish benchmarks, they need to be future benchmarks."

Ted Turnbull from the University of Portsmouth added that tools firms need to be accomodating for academic institutes: "It might make it easier for us to set up workspaces if they adopted something more similar to Unity and Epic Games in terms of commercial licensing.

"At the moment we have issues with is in order to put software in our hub, it needs to be commercial licences which have very substantial costs associated with them. If we could persuade more tools firms to introduce educational licences, the university doesn't have to fork out so much money. If students products become commercial, fine, take your cut then, but if not, we can't really afford it."

For all the challenges academia and industry face, TIGA noted that there are plenty of positives. The trade body's latest research shows that 80% of UK studios are investing in training and, extraordinarily, the average studio provides 14 days of training to a member of staff - double the average of other industries.

"There's a lot to be pleased and proud about in terms of how we support the developers of the future," said Wilson.

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