China has better hackers than us

The failure to teach computer science in schools and universities bites back

The Register reports on new statistics released by the coding site Interview Street which illustrate the dominance of developing economies in the field of information technology.

The site offers jobseekers tricky coding challenges to solve, with the idea being that the coders who have objectively demonstrated their merit will get picked up by big tech firms (it seems to work; Business Insider claims that Facebook and Zynga recruit from the site). They also have leaderboards, with the best candidate's countries listed. And guess who dominates the boards:

It's not just China. Over half of the top fifty hackers (that's "proficient at using computers", not "cyber-terrorist") are from BRICS countries, and although the US makes a showing, the highest Briton is 79th. Well done anyway, "srowley".

The Register's Phil Muncaster argues that our poor form is a consequence of the decline in focus given to science and technology, writing:

The government’s announcement last year of an overhaul to GCSE and A-Level exams to include more focus on coding and programming is a step in the right direction but fails to address the basic fact that sci-tech courses don’t have the requisite cool to attract large numbers of students.

Of course, China's lead may mean little if they continue to cordon their citizens off from the rest of the internet. Unless, that is, their lead in computer science is viewed, not as an economic issue, but as a military one. The great international relations scholar Joseph Nye warned today:

The world is only just beginning to see glimpses of cyber war – in the denial-of-service attacks that accompanied the conventional war in Georgia in 2008, or the recent sabotage of Iranian centrifuges. . . It is time for states to sit down and discuss how to limit this threat to world peace.

A Chinese computer user visits Ali Baba. Credit: Getty

Alex Hern is a technology reporter for the Guardian. He was formerly staff writer at the New Statesman. You should follow Alex on Twitter.

Photo: Getty
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Sooner or later, a British university is going to go bankrupt

Theresa May's anti-immigration policies will have a big impact - and no-one is talking about it. 

The most effective way to regenerate somewhere? Build a university there. Of all the bits of the public sector, they have the most beneficial local effects – they create, near-instantly, a constellation of jobs, both directly and indirectly.

Don’t forget that the housing crisis in England’s great cities is the jobs crisis everywhere else: universities not only attract students but create graduate employment, both through directly working for the university or servicing its students and staff.

In the United Kingdom, when you look at the renaissance of England’s cities from the 1990s to the present day, universities are often unnoticed and uncelebrated but they are always at the heart of the picture.

And crucial to their funding: the high fees of overseas students. Thanks to the dominance of Oxford and Cambridge in television and film, the wide spread of English around the world, and the soft power of the BBC, particularly the World Service,  an education at a British university is highly prized around of the world. Add to that the fact that higher education is something that Britain does well and the conditions for financially secure development of regional centres of growth and jobs – supposedly the tentpole of Theresa May’s agenda – are all in place.

But at the Home Office, May did more to stop the flow of foreign students into higher education in Britain than any other minister since the Second World War. Under May, that department did its utmost to reduce the number of overseas students, despite opposition both from BIS, then responsible for higher education, and the Treasury, then supremely powerful under the leadership of George Osborne.

That’s the hidden story in today’s Office of National Statistics figures showing a drop in the number of international students. Even small falls in the number of international students has big repercussions for student funding. Take the University of Hull – one in six students are international students. But remove their contribution in fees and the University’s finances would instantly go from surplus into deficit. At Imperial, international students make up a third of the student population – but contribute 56 per cent of student fee income.

Bluntly – if May continues to reduce student numbers, the end result is going to be a university going bust, with massive knock-on effects, not only for research enterprise but for the local economies of the surrounding area.

And that’s the trajectory under David Cameron, when the Home Office’s instincts faced strong countervailing pressure from a powerful Treasury and a department for Business, Innovation and Skills that for most of his premiership hosted a vocal Liberal Democrat who needed to be mollified. There’s every reason to believe that the Cameron-era trajectory will accelerate, rather than decline, now that May is at the Treasury, the new department of Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy doesn’t even have responsibility for higher education anymore. (That’s back at the Department for Education, where the Secretary of State, Justine Greening, is a May loyalist.)

We talk about the pressures in the NHS or in care, and those, too, are warning lights in the British state. But watch out too, for a university that needs to be bailed out before long. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.