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Universities aim to bring the dot.com industry out of the cold by offering applicants much more choice
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The Independent Online

The dot.com bubble may have long since burst, but things seem to be looking up for the computing industry. A skills shortage means qualified graduates are increasingly in demand and a host of new courses is giving the industry a more diverse and exciting feel.

The dot.com bubble may have long since burst, but things seem to be looking up for the computing industry. A skills shortage means qualified graduates are increasingly in demand and a host of new courses is giving the industry a more diverse and exciting feel.

These days, it's hard to find a British university that doesn't offer at least one computer science course - and Ucas lists 2,448 of them. The University of Edinburgh, which has the widest choice of computing degrees in the UK, offers courses ranging from the more traditional software engineering to more recent combinations with linguistics or psychology. Elsewhere, students have the option to focus on computer games or to study computers alongside animal behaviour, dance, law, languages or philosophy.

Yet people haven't been lining up to study computing at university. Ucas figures for 2004 show an 18 per cent drop in computer science applicants, and for information systems it's even worse, at 25 per cent. Few other subject areas have dropped so drastically, and the fall is on par with naval architecture and Latin studies - neither of which spring to mind as lucrative fields. One reason may be applicants need good maths, at a time when A-level maths candidates are on the wane.

But Professor Wendy Hall believes it's more do with what people think computing jobs are all about and the false perception that computing is in the doldrums. Professor Hall is head of the school of electronics and computer science at Southampton University, and to her "the question is, when will the drop in applicants level off and the figures go up? Right now we're in the dot.com winter".

Things were rosy during the dot.com boom, when there was a surge of applicants to university computing courses - many enticed by press reports of overnight riches. But, until recently, media coverage on the IT industry has been more about job lay-offs than high salaries. But if it's winter now, then spring is just around the corner. Professor Hall, the former president of the British Computer Society, says the industry is growing dramatically and the problem is trying to keep up with training. "We need intelligent, creative people," she says, "and we need to move away from the image that computer science is for boys who like to play computer games."

In the next 10 years, as technology changes, so will the way we use computers. The industry will become more people focused, says Professor Hall; more about organising people and networks. And one way to attract more applicants is the trend in combined courses. While Professor Hall says this is not new, what is new is the way life science and computing sciences are being combined with new postgraduate courses in biologically inspired computing.

James Jacobson, MSc admission tutor at Imperial College London, says demand for their graduates has been steadily increasing, even in times of economic downturn. "There has been a drop in undergraduate applicants for the last couple of years and it has been more difficult to get a job in the computing industry," he says. "But there is still a healthy demand for qualified people." He says the latest batch of Imperial graduates has found it easier to get work than their predecessors.

Elizabeth Hogger, the director of undergraduate studies at Royal Holloway, University of London, hopes the drop in applicants is "only a blip" and says there's been a huge amount of interest in next year's courses - introducing a new emphasis on web-based technology and web-based computing. Female applicants are still few and far between, which Hogger attributes to the perception girls have of computers at school. In the 1960s, almost half of all systems analysts in the UK were female, and the following decade promised plenty of computing jobs for women. But while about 35 per cent of GCSE computer studies students are female, this halves when it comes to university entrants. "We need to get more women," says Professor Hall. "It will be good for the industry and good for the country."

education@independent.co.uk

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