Australia finds flexible solution to IT drought

April 9, 1999

MELBOURNE

Australia's technological universities are beginning to broaden university courses in information technology as a means of helping overcome a desperate shortage of IT professionals.

A federal government advisory council will discuss proposals this month to encourage more institutions to adopt similar schemes. The council was established by federal communications minister Senator Richard Alston who has asked it to come up with medium and long-term ways of solving the shortages.

A council member and dean of the faculty of art, design and communications at the Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology, Robin Williams, has proposed that universities introduce a cross-faculty first-year course. At RMIT, the course involves a foundation year in which students take units in business, science, engineering, and art, design and communications.

Professor Williams believes such a scheme would give students a better basis on which to make future career decisions. He said the initial experience would help young students decide which career path best suits them.

At RMIT from next year, students interested in IT careers or related fields will study topics ranging from basic programming and design to multimedia and e-commerce. By their third year they will also gain industrial experience and at the end of their fourth year will be able to graduate with either the new BA (Multimedia) degree or a traditional degree in business, applied science or other subjects.

"We hope the course will familiarise the students with business and other applications of information technology," Professor Williams said. "From the feedback we get, we think students are interested in multimedia and the online economy but at the age of 17 they don't have much idea of what that is all about or where their skills might best be applied."

A novel aspect of the RMIT program is the involvement of a personnel recruiting firm, Morgan and Banks. RMIT has a "strategic relationship" with the company although the major emphasis has been on students in the latter years of their courses who receive careers guidance and aptitude testing and are placed on the firm's database for employment opportunities.

"In the new programme, Morgan and Banks will be involved in the whole career management process right from the foundation year," Professor Williams said. "So, when students start they are signed in with the company and they have their careers managed right through their courses."

Morgan and Banks will work with the Australian Information Industries Association to identify shortages. Professor Williams said the aim is to build flexibility into the education system so that if a shortage of people with business-application knowledge arose, "the flow of student traffic" could be directed that way.

Another serious issue is the shortage of computer science academics to run IT courses. A survey by the Association of Heads and Professors of Computer Science in Australasia revealed that more than ten per cent of such staff positions were vacant and that of these, half were not being advertised because faculties could not enrol sufficient students of high calibre.

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