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The computing crash

Computer science graduates are vital to the United Kingdom's future, but students don't seem to want to log on. Caitlin Davies reports

Undergraduates appear to be losing interest in computing subjects now that the glamour of the dot.com years has worn off - and experts fear the decline is bad news for UK business. The number of people signing up for degrees in information systems, software engineering and artificial intelligence fell significantly this year. Yet companies such as Oracle, described as the world's second largest independent software company, believe the growth of the UK economy depends on plenty of computing and engineering graduates.

According to provisional figures from UCAS, there has been a 6.5 per cent drop in students pursuing computer science degrees between 2002 and 2003. When it comes to information systems, software engineering and artificial intelligence, the drop is even higher, at about 14 per cent each.

While UCAS says more people are achieving places at university or college, and subjects such as medicine and law are on the increase, the interest in computing is on the wane.

At Southampton University, there has been a fall in computer science and software engineering applicants over the past three years after a peak in 2000. "It's a big puzzle," says Paul Garrett, senior admissions tutor in the school of electronics and computer science. While it's tempting to blame it on the dot.com crash, he says, it would have taken a few years for this to have an effect. Instead, it could be that students are not studying technical subjects at schools, where there is a shortage of qualified teachers.

Oracle believes the decrease in the number of undergraduates will have a terrible impact on labour force productivity. "I'm not surprised by the figures, but I am depressed," says Ian Smith, its Senior Vice-President and Managing Director for UK, Ireland and South Africa. He attributes the trend to a culture in which maths, science and engineering don't have the same status as other university subjects.

Smith points to a direct link between a country's GDP and its general well-being, and the number of people with maths, science and engineering degrees. He cites this year's budget statement, which suggested that in order to catch up with America's GDP, foreign students doing such subjects could be given permits to stay in the UK. "If we are to compete then we need indigenous labour," says Smith.

He believes people are abandoning computing degrees because the courses are difficult, "not made exciting" and young people are not motivated at school. "Careers for maths, science and engineering graduates are seen as boring," he says, "but I'm an engineer, and I know how exciting it is."

Oracle wants British businesses to work with the Government to encourage A-level students to see computing subjects as important for their future careers. Oracle UK is to donate £1m over four years to support 40 specialist school bids, and is the first "technology vendor" to do so.

But despite the decline in computing undergraduates, some universities say their figures have held up well. The universities of Teesside and Plymouth say computing is one of their growth areas and there have been no problems with recruitment.

Dr Andrew Main, head of computing at Bournemouth University, says there has been only a slight drop in applicants, which could be because the university has recently raised the entry requirements.

Bournemouth students see computing as a strong career move, says Dr Main, offering mobility and a wide range of future jobs, whether as a "techie" or project manager. Sadly, however, there has not been an increase in women applicants. Dr Main says the "pointy head brigade" at school tend to be boys, although women graduates do extremely well. (At Southampton, on the other hand, the number of British female computer applicants has doubled this year, with no obvious explanation.)

Yet, while fewer students are applying for computing subjects at degree or HND level, there has been a marked increase in those pursuing them at full-time foundation level. More universities are now offering foundation degrees, and this year accepted computer science applicants were up by 243 per cent. Last year there were only nine successful software engineering applicants in the UK, but this year it was a far healthier 58.