Decline in IT forces teaching job cuts

June 23, 2006

Australian institutions are downsizing as enrolments slide, writes Geoff Maslen

Hundreds of academics have lost their jobs teaching information technology courses at Australia's universities after a massive fall in enrolments.

Faculties and departments of IT have suffered a collapse in student numbers of up to 60 per cent in the past five years as the subject's popularity has plummeted. Students have opted for other courses after regular news reports of high unemployment in Australia's IT sector.

Almost one in three new graduates in 2005 was still looking for work four months after leaving university. A downturn in the IT industry forced companies to lay off staff. But the demand for jobs was exacerbated as thousands of foreign students, who obtained permanent residency by completing IT courses, created an oversupply of qualified professionals.

The uncertain employment opportunities, coupled with a rise in Higher Education Contribution Scheme fees, changed student attitudes and profoundly affected applications for IT courses.

Universities hardest hit by the downturn have made redundancies, while others are not replacing academics who leave, renewing contracts or hiring casual staff. Many have restructured their IT departments by absorbing them into mega faculties.

The private Bond University was forced to close its IT faculty last year and make it a school within the business faculty. A major restructure at the University of Western Sydney resulted in its School of Computing and IT becoming part of a new College of Health and Science, and IT has disappeared.

Undergraduate numbers in Australia's largest IT faculty at Monash University fell by nearly 50 per cent in the four years after 2001, when more than 5,000 students were enrolled. After a review, courses have been cut while 24 academics have taken voluntary redundancy.

The University of South Australia has the biggest IT department in the state, but it has lost 40 per cent of its 1,150 local undergraduates since 2001. Only a sharp rise in overseas enrolments prevented course closures and staff layoffs.

But universities elsewhere have experienced a marked fall in overseas student numbers. At Curtin University in Perth, domestic and foreign enrolments are a third of what they were in 2001.

"The dotcom crash in 2001 and 2002 reverberated not just in Australia but around the world," said Peter Lee, Curtin's executive dean for engineering, science and computing. "Our international marketing team now receives few inquiries from international students for computing, in its broadest sense, hardware or software."

Robert Kinnaird, a Sydney-based immigration analyst, has been a critic of granting skilled migrant visas to overseas students graduating from Australian universities. He warned that local computer graduates would face even greater competition for jobs from overseas students if a proposed government plan were adopted.

A study of Australia's general skilled migration programme, commissioned by Immigration Minister Amanda Vanstone, recommended granting overseas students a two-year temporary work visa so they could gain work experience after graduating. The recommendation follows employers' concerns that foreign graduates who studied in Australia lacked work experience and had poor English-language skills.

A report of the study notes that a third of overseas students who obtained permanent residency had professional jobs six months after graduating.

Mr Kinnaird said the scheme might work in industries that faced skills shortages, but would only worsen the oversupply of graduates in IT.

He added that that this would lead to a continued decline in Australians enrolling in computer courses. "What the proposal means is that there will be even greater competition for entry-level graduate IT jobs in Australia,"

he said.

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