The decline, fall and rebirth of IT education

By Rachel Fielding
27 Mar 2012 View Comments
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Despite an alarming decline in computing undergraduate courses, there are signs that the discipline is about to enjoy a renaissance

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Cultivating a strong tech economy is essential to the UK’s future prosperity. But as the country’s technology and engineering sector continues to face a massive shortfall of skilled workers, has the IT undergraduate degree simply had its day?

Computing undergraduate courses are experiencing an alarming decline, according to research published in February. Overall, the number of degree courses on offer at British universities has been slashed by more than a quarter in the past six years, with almost 20,000 fewer full-time undergraduate courses available now than there were in 2006, according to the University and College Union (UCU). Among the cuts are plans to slash STEM subjects – science, technology, engineering and maths – by 14.6 per cent.

The UCU analysis shows that the number of computer science courses across the UK fell from 207 in 2006 to 169 this year. The report says the new university funding regime is at least partly to blame for dictating the provision of courses on the basis of short-term popularity contests.

“I am really concerned that under the new funding environment universities will look at concentrating their resources on courses which they believe will deliver the highest financial return. The loss of the block grant has taken away an important measure of financial security that allowed institutions to plan for the future,” says Professor James Ladyman, head of the department of philosophy at the University of Bristol.

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Given that we now have a market for education and fee-paying customers – otherwise known as students – increasingly looking for a return on investment from their higher education, the reduction in course numbers is, some argue, nothing more than symptomatic of a supply-and-demand inevitability and an illustration that students are voting with their feet. According to e-Skills UK, the number of all applicants to computing and telecoms-related higher education courses in the UK has declined by 44 per cent since 2001.

Perhaps surprisingly, the relative buoyancy of the IT sector and obvious demand for fresh blood is doing little to encourage more people to consider the IT degree route. Despite an encouraging outlook for the sector – employment in the IT industry is predicted to grow at 2.19 per cent per annum, nearly five times faster than the UK average – sector skills council e-Skills UK warns that over half a million new entrants are required to fill IT and telecoms professional job roles in the UK over the next five years.

More than just an inconvenience, the knock-on effects of this shortfall for business are not to be sniffed at; nine out of 10 firms suffering IT and telecoms related skills shortages are experiencing delays in the development of new products or services, they say.

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