Number of computing students continues to fall

The number of students applying to study computing at university has fallen by 48 per cent since 2001, according to a new report - and the issue is only going to get worse.

The report, by Research Insights for the Council of Professors and Heads of Computing, showed that the number of students taking computing courses at higher education level has fallen by 22 per cent from 2004 to 2007, and is at its lowest level since 2000.

Study author Professor Lachlan MacKinnon noted that government investment in 1996 lead to a significant increase in numbers of students taking up the subjects, with the numbers doubling over a matter of years.

But now, with less funding, the lingering effects of the dotcom bust making the market look unstable and the perceived difficulty of the subjects has lead to decline, he explained. "Since that time, there's been a gradual diminishing and now significant drop in the number of students taking the subject," he told IT PRO.

And there's no end in sight, as the decline is set to continue to at least 2010.

The lack of students taking such courses is troublesome for the sector, which already faces a skills gap. With the UK IT sector set to grown by an average of 163,000 from 2007 to 2016 - to a total of 1,234,000 IT professionals - it's only going to get worse, MacKinnon said. "We've got a growing IT sector, but are actually producing fewer students than 1996," he said. "If we're going to have a knowledge economy... we need the right sort of people to work it."

The government has made a commitment to keep the UK globally competitive, MacKinnon noted, adding: "We will lose that within the next one to two years because we don't have the people."

Of the 179,800 new appointments made each year in the UK IT sector, 19 per cent come from university or some other higher education, while 39 per cent are from non-IT roles. Another 21 per cent already hold IT roles, the report said.

Indeed, despite some previous claims, the worst skills concern isn't business, communication or interpersonal, but pure tech, the report suggested.

MacKinnon said there are short-term solutions to the problem, including offshoring, encouraging immigration of skilled IT workers, and taking measures to keep both overseas and UK students in the country. He said investment in commercial training and postgraduate programmes could help too.

But offshoring and training migrant workers only goes so far, he claimed. "They might meet IT needs, but we're talking about staying globally competitive," MacKinnon said. "It's pragmatic in the short-term but builds greater problems in the future."

"Outsourcing is a perfectly reasonable exercise for a business to take," he said, but it means entry-level positions are moved overseas, leaving nowhere for new grads to get experience. A report earlier this year suggested entry-level pay is being hit by this trend.

And overseas workers brought in to boost numbers are only a stop-gap solution, he said. "The problem with that is those individuals are skilled in things they learn, but they don't have a deep knowledge," MacKinnon explained.

The best long-term solution is boosting student numbers through increased investment, MacKinnon said. "We can turn this around with appropriate investment," he said. "It must be a concerted activity by educators, government and industry to turn this around... if we don't, we'll see ongoing decline."