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UCAS: New universities are logging on to popular technology

Former polytechnics offer some of the best computer courses, writes Diana Appleyard
Computer courses are, by their very nature, one of the boom subjects for many of the universities - especially the former polytechnics. The difficulty for many, however, is keeping pace with the ever-changing nature of the hardware and software, and many institutions find themselves having to constantly change and update certain modules. Although the top universities for computing, according to a recent survey, remain the "ivy league" universities - Cambridge, Warwick, Oxford, Imperial, Edinburgh - this is an area in which many of the former polytechnics score very highly.

Industry is quick to recognise the more practical aspects of the subject these universities teach, rather than place too much of an emphasis on the scientific side.

In general, maths to A-level is seen as the main requirement of most universities, although a number do offer foundation courses. Otherwise almost all other A-levels are acceptable - the ability to "think logically" being one of the main criteria. There are currently 92 institutions offering various forms of computing courses. Programming languages, data processing, systems analysis, artificial intelligence, graphics, software and hardware are all aspects of these courses. Many offer European languages as well and almost all have industrial placements.

Computing as a course was first introduced in 1965, and one of the first computer studies graduates was Professor Ray Newton, now the dean of computing at the University of Staffordshire and the one-time vice-chairman of the British Computer Society and also chairman of the Board of Examiners.

At Staffordshire, undergraduate recruitment to the faculty is up 40 per cent on last year, but there are still a reasonable number of places available on the 27 undergraduate programmes on offer. But the university, like almost every other in the UK, has problems recruiting women.

Professor Newton says: "Nationally, only around 17 per cent of computing undergraduates are women. I personally trace this malaise back to the time when computers were first put in to the schools. They were seen as boys' toys, and were often placed in the maths and physics rooms, where boys often physically barred the doors to stop girls coming in to try out the computer games.

"All you need to operate a computer is a logical mind and there is no earthly reason why more women shouldn't take up this option.

"It's also interesting that this only happens in the UK - I'm on the board of examiners over in Dublin, and their undergraduates are split 50:50."

The big area now in computer studies is Internet technology.

Professor Newton says: "The reaction in industry to the courses we run is stunning. It cannot get enough of our undergraduates. Graduate employment is running in the high 90 per cents, and nationally graduates in computing studies courses can expect to be in the high earning bracket. Starting salaries of pounds 18,000 to pounds 25,000 are common, often with company cars and private health plans thrown in."

Seventy per cent of undergraduates in computing are in the new universities, who were the first to recognise the boom in this area. As well as Staffordshire, Wolverhampton, Hertfordshire and Brighton were quick to spot the potential market, and have remained leaders in this field.

Most universities will be offering places in computing through Clearing - not necessarily through a lack of demand for places, but simply because of the high number of courses most universities now offer in this subject. Aston in Birmingham, for example, offers a joint honours course with electronic engineering, business computing and IT. At the University of Birmingham, joint courses are offered with artificial intelligence (including psychology, philosophy and music), computer science and computer studies.

Some universities do not demand A-level maths, for example the University of the West of England in Bristol offers computing in real time systems with a modern language option without this requirement. The four-year sandwich course offers students a placement in Europe or the US.

De Montfort offers an integrated BSc/HND course with year three in industry, which also does not require maths A-level.

In terms of the sheer variety of computing courses, Keele University has an extremely wide choice, with over 60 joint honours on offer.

Wolverhampton, too, has an extensive and highly popular degree scheme in over 10 specialist subjects including artificial intelligence, graphics and software engineering.