Big input fails to plug gap

August 22, 1997

In the second of our series, we look at what students can expect from some fast-growing and fast-changing subjects

In 1986 there were just 3,200 students studying for computer science degrees and HNDs, writes Kam Patel. By 1993, just before the ending of the binary divide, the total had shot up to 13,680.

For Patricia Pearce, head of computing science at Plymouth University and until recently the chair of the conference of professors and heads of computing, the dramatic increase is a reflection of growing demand for expertise in an expanding computing industry.

Indeed, numbers have continued to rise. According to UCAS, accepted degree applications in the subject in 1996 totalled just over 16,000, of which 4,230 were for HND courses. The figures cover the four main areas of computing: computer science, computer systems engineering, software engineering and artificial intelligence.

Numbers may look healthy but industry, government and trade associations are warning of a skills "crisis" in the field because of two problems. The first is computer software programs not being able to cope with the date change at 2000 - the so-called "millennium time bomb". The second is economic and monetary union, which will mean big changes in the way computerised financial systems are managed across the European Union.

"Ten years ago computer scientists, unfortunately, were not thinking too much about these problems," said Professor Pearce. "Now companies are putting much of their effort into these areas and into trying to keep their computer systems up to date with other legislative changes. All this requires more trained people in the field."

The shortage is likely to continue until 2003-04 before improving, according to Professor Pearce, who cited a recent report by the computer trade association CSSA that estimates the industry will need an extra 50,000 people by 2000.

While the 2000 problem and monetary union will mean a big demand for graduates specialising in writing, implementing and testing programs, there will also be opportunities in new technologies. "The big new areas are computer networks such as Internet and intranet," said Professor Pearce. "These technologies will increasingly combine with interactive TV and sensory devices to generate endless possible new directions."

With companies fighting for staff, there are plenty of jobs available. "Increasingly young graduates are going into consultancy after a couple of years of employment and are commanding high salaries," said Professor Pearce.

The Higher Education Funding Council for England's 1994 quality assessment of computer science covered 96 providers in England and Northern Ireland. Only ten were judged excellent, 84 satisfactory and two unsatisfactory. "Although the amount of unsatisfactory provision is small, these results leave no room for complacency," said HEFCE. At 11 per cent, the level of excellent providers was the lowest of the eight subjects assessed at the time.

Where instruction was faulty, HEFCE's assessors criticised "pedestrian teaching, reduced opportunities for independent learning and limited staff development". Assessors were also worried that rapid expansion in student numbers had stretched resources. "Resources have always been a big problem," said Professor Pearce. "Software and hardware is changing so rapidly that it is a battle keeping up."

Despite their worries, assessors found that about 40 per cent of undergraduates got a first-class or upper second honours degree.

Six departments secured a 5-star rating in last year's research assessment exercise - Cambridge, Oxford, York, Heriot-Watt, Imperial College London and Glasgow. Ten achieved a 5 rating.

Computer facts

* Much of the expansion in provision of computer courses began in the new universities. In 1986 there were 1,550 degree and HND students in polytechnics compared with 1,660 in universities . By 1993 numbers of degree students in old universities had risen to 3,380 but in former polytechnics had mushroomed to 5,600 with a further 4,700 studying HNDs.

* The number of home and overseas applicants for 1996 entry who made computer science a priority preference was 15,717. The figure covers computer science, computer systems engineering, software engineering and artificial intelligence. Total applications were 80,550.

* In 1996 accepted applications for overseas students totalled 1,109 and 14,950 for home-based students.

Source: UCAS and HESA

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