Computing hit by low take-up

June 8, 2007

Academics face redundancy as former boom subject fails to attract new students. Chloe Stothart reports

Redundancies are looming as the once booming field of computer science shows signs of bust, with serious knock-on consequences for the economy, the sector was warned this week.

Nottingham Trent University anticipates up to 16 voluntary redundancies, the University of Central England is in talks with unions about ten voluntary redundancies and Derby University is redeploying or allowing the early retirement of four staff.

Nationally, the number of applications for places on undergraduate computing courses almost halved between 2001 and 2005, although the pace of decline did slow between 2004 and 2005, according to statistics from the Universities and Colleges Admissions Service.

Academics warn that the downturn in applications could have serious repercussions for the UK's IT industry and the economy because there is a severe skills shortage.

A report for the British Computer Society says 150,000 extra employees are needed in IT each year but only 20,000 UK students graduate in the subject annually.

Mike Rodd, director of external relations for the British Computer Society, said: "BCS is very concerned (about the drop in applications) because of the knock-on effect we will see in three to four years' time. We have had lots of negative publicity in every area about IT project failures, things like Connecting for Health. A significant number of schools are not encouraging kids to study IT and computing-related subjects even if they are good at it at school."

Anne De Roeck, professor of computing at the Open University and chair of the Council of Professors and Heads of Computing, said an additional source of pressure on computing departments was that the funding council had revised the funding band so departments received less money.

She said: "The financial pressure on departments is quite severe, so there have been shifts in departments with staff leaving and some redundancies in the past. Some departments are reorienting themselves to different subject areas."

She said outsourcing of jobs had led to a perception that there were fewer jobs in the sector, although this was untrue. "There is pressure on us as a subject area, and the Government and funding agencies should not take their eye off the ball. It is an important sector in the UK, and once the capacity disappears that threatens an important part of the economy."

Kamal Bechkoum, head of the school of computing and assistant dean of the faculty of business, computing and law at Derby University, said: "What we do not understand is that, despite the skills shortage and the importance of IT to our lives, students do not seem to be interested."

He speculated that people may have "lost trust" in the IT sector after a previous wave of graduates struggled to get work when the dotcom bubble burst.

He said that the department was restructuring its curriculum and taking on new staff in some areas in response to the rapidly changing demands of industry and students.

A spokesman for Nottingham Trent said that no courses had been closed but some of the teams within the departments had been merged. Overall recruitment in computer science at the university had gone up by 20 per cent this year, but the popularity of individual courses varied. The changes would ensure that students "receive the very best in educational experiences, expertly geared towards the needs of industry and society related to that area".

Mary Carswell, pro vice-chancellor of the University of Central England, said the university had seen a reduction in the number of applications after a period of "massive growth when demand was perhaps overinflated", but numbers had bounced back again this year.

She added that concern over IT job prospects may have been behind the dip in applications, but confidence seemed to be returning in the wake of publicity about the IT skills shortage.

Last July, London South Bank University cut 11 posts from its computing and business information technology programme and five posts from the Institute of Computing Research, citing falls in student numbers.

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