Emeritus Professor Peter Juliff AM has spent the past 16 years assessing the qualifications and experience of over 50,000 ICT professionals applying to work in Australia under the Skilled Migration Scheme.

A retired academic and IT professional, Juliff is part of a team of ten that assesses migration applications from home. "It's a prime example of a paperless, decentralised operation," he tells Information Age.

The ACS is the Australian Government's official authority for assessing the ICT skills of migration visa applicants.

Juliff said that all of the ACS assessors came with a mix of academic and industry experience. "It means we're able to look at both sides of what we have to assess for an immigrant - their qualifications and also their work experience," he said.

Juliff has overseen a steady rise in applications since he became an ACS assessor in 1999, although application numbers appear to have peaked, at least for the moment.

"When I started doing it, we only reviewed perhaps 100 applications a year," he said.

"Of later times the work has grown quite considerably and more staff have been taken on. But the curve has dipped again recently in the last eight to nine months and the volume of applications has dropped off a bit again."

As an academic whose initial foray into IT education came at Caulfield Institute of Technology - now a campus of Monash University - Juliff is a keen advocate for that model of practical skills-based training.

While at Caulfield, Juliff managed that institute's contribution to the Federal Government's Programmer In Training (PIT) scheme, which armed public servants with computing skills.

"What we were after was essentially producing people who could then go out into the IT workforce and become IT professionals and useful members of the IT community," he said.

Mapping the spiral

Juliff laments what he sees as the defocusing of attention from practical training of IT professionals locally as well as the gradual decline in the number of students choosing a career in IT.

The Australian Financial Review reported last year that there had been a 36 percent decline in students starting IT degrees since 2001.

"The popularity of IT degrees at universities seems to have dropped off markedly over the last ten to 15 years," he said.

"In my observation, many courses have been scrapped, many departments have been abolished and so on. I think IT is no longer seen by the kids at school as a career path."

In the meantime, that gap is being filled by skilled migrants that Juliff and others in the team assess.

"As an old educator in IT, what a pity it is that we have to import our IT people from overseas instead of growing them at home," he said. "Australia is not making its own IT experts."

As Juliff sees the qualifications of skilled migration applicants day-in day-out, he believes he has spotted a few patterns.

"The Indian universities, for example, are quite unashamedly putting out Bachelors and Masters degrees in what they call computer applications," he said.

"You look at this and it's exactly the sort of course that we used to teach back in the Technical Institutes - it's hands-on, do-it sort of stuff - it's not research-oriented. They're practical degrees."

Starting with schools

Juliff sees schools as the starting point to raise the number of students enrolling in IT courses, and therefore increase the number of homegrown IT professionals.

In particular, he wants to see schools - and teachers - introduce students to a higher level of sophistication in ICT than that to which they would be exposed in their everyday lives.

"I think many students see software as something you buy - if you want something done there's an app for it," he said.

"But the magical world of business doesn't necessarily run on apps. There's got to be people out there to write serious software to handle large databases and so on.

"I think perhaps students are not aware of this career path. [Big enterprise software development is] something that just happens in the background."

Despite the rise of apps and mobility, he does not see the end of heavier enterprise applications.

"There will always be big business - the banks, insurers, utilities and so on - who have large systems," he said. "All require fairly sophisticated and robust software, not apps."