Computing is for geeks, right? Far from it, says Stephen Pritchard. In fact, you should seize the chance to get involved
Computing is one of the country's fastest growing industries; pay as a computer professional is above average for graduates. According to the research group IDC, there are 9.1 million people employed as IT professionals in Europe. By the year 2002 - when this year's new students will graduate - there could be a shortfall of 1.6 million IT specialists in Western Europe.

Applications to IT courses at universities are growing fast, with several universities reporting increases of up to 20 per cent this year. Even so, there are still vacancies on computing, information technology and related programmes. Students who take them up, and who are successful on their courses, have good prospects in a job market that looks set to grow.

Computing is shaking off its dull, back-room image. Computers are used throughout business, and they play a central role in entertainment, communications and new media, especially the Internet. University computing courses are changing to reflect this. There are still pure computer science degrees, where the emphasis is on engineering or programming skills, but these are now joined by degrees which are geared more towards the needs of general businesses or even courses aimed at people with an interest in the creative arts.

"Computing is attracting more and more applicants because most jobs require some knowledge of information technology," says Douglas Kemp, senior tutor in the school of computing and information management at Leeds Metropolitan University. "Our courses are very much about producing a range of people, some with technical skills and some who are stronger on systems design or analysis. But computing is no longer a corner-of-the-room subject." Like most university IT departments, Leeds Met has openings for applicants without science or maths A-levels. A technical background in computing is less important than an interest and the right aptitude.

The exact entry requirements vary from university to university and depend on the content of the course. IT and computing covers such a wide variety of academic programmes that even within a single college there might be several options needing varying degrees of technical know-how. Although it is hard to generalise, courses described as computer science or computing will be the most technical; courses described as information systems or business systems will be more accessible to applicants with arts A-levels.

Essex University runs a computer science course which will take applicants without maths or computing A-levels. The course, though, does require an aptitude for dealing with logical statements and symbols - the basis of computer code.

"You have to be willing to do some programming during the course," explains Gillian Kearney, senior teaching fellow in the department of computing. "You have to have some aptitude. We do not ask for A-level maths, but we do need a good grade in maths at GCSE."

Essex is offering a number of places on computing courses in Clearing, but for applicants who have done less well than they expected, the A-level subjects are more important. Essex normally asks for 20 points for computer science, but for Clearing applicants offering 14 points, the university is more likely to take candidates with maths and computing A-levels.

At the University of East London, computing is part of the business school. "Computing is a reasonably applied area," explains Dr Quentin Charatan, senior lecturer in computing and business information systems. "It is very much a vocational area. Careers people from here go on to do systems analysis, software engineering or network administration. Some people go into more hybrid management roles within business. They could be managing the technology, rather than producing it themselves.

Computing graduates are by no means restricted to a computing career or to working in a computer company. Most firms hire graduates with computing degrees either to a central IT department or as general management trainees. For graduates who want to stay actively involved in computing, there is the option of working for a software company, or joining an IT consultancy firm such as Logica or Andersen Consulting. There are also jobs in the entertainment industry, working in computer games, film and graphics production, or for an Internet service. There is also the option to continue into research.

Computing at university is more accessible than a pure science such as chemistry or physics; there is a wider range of courses on offer and entry requirements are more flexible.

The subject does need commitment. Like science and engineering courses, computing has a heavy load of timetabled hours with sessions in the lab.

"It does require commitment to get your head around it," agrees Douglas Kemp at Leeds Metropolitan University. "But if you do stick with the course there are rewards at the end."